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Qishloq Ovozi

An old Soviet stamp celebrating the Turkmen national poet Makhtumkuli Feraghy. (click to see entire image)
Tell those who enquire about me
That I am a Gerkez, I hail from Etrek and my name is Makhtumkuli.
Makhtumkuli Feraghy, or more simply Makhtumkuli, is the beloved 18th century poet of the Turkmen people.

This month, starting May 14, Turkmenistan is celebrating the anniversary of Makhtumkuli's birth, as the country has done since it became independent in 1991.

No one is sure when exactly when Makhtumkuli was born, so for the purposes of the celebration, Turkmenistan is this year marking his 290th birthday, which is certainly at least close to being correct.

Makhtumkuli is one topic all the Turkmen in Turkmenistan, and all the Turkmen outside Turkmenistan, can agree upon, though his fame extends far beyond the Turkmen people.

Makhtumkuli says he is from Etrek, the area near the Caspian Sea where, currently, Iran and Turkmenistan meet. He was educated in Bukhara and Khiva, and was fluent in Arabic, Persian and Turkic languages, particularly the dominant Turkic language of Makhtumkuli's region at the time -- Chagatai.

But his best poetry was written in the Turkmen language and he could be considered the father of the Turkmen language in many ways.

Turkmen was an underdeveloped language when Makhtumkuli was young. Writers and scholars were producing work in the two dominant languages – Persian and Chagatai, but Makhtumkuli would change that for his people.

Makhtumkuli not only wrote poetry in Turkmen, he developed and enriched the language through this works. His influence on the Turkmen tongue has even led some to compare it Shakespeare's impact on English.

Youssef Azemoun is the author of "Songs from the Steppes of Central Asia; The Collected Poems of Makhtumkuli," which not only includes translations of the Turkmen bard's poems in English, but also provides some details of Makhtumkuli's life, much of which, remains unclear to this day.

There were not many records kept in that area in those times and those that were kept were often lost to misadventure.

And that is a good place to start telling the story of the life of Makhtumkuli for Azemoun's notes in his book that the poet "lost the fruits of years of hard and devoted work...including his manuscripts" during an invasion of his homelands. Makhtumkuli's possessions were loaded onto raiders' camels and taken away but he was watching when the camel carrying away his manuscripts slipped and dumped all his written works into a river.

In his poem "Making My Dear Life Lost," Makhtumkuli describes his feelings.
Making my dear life lost to all that's good,
An evil fate wrought awesome sacrilege,
Hurling the books I'd written to the flood,
To leave me bookless with my grief and rage.
This from a man who had already lost so much by that time: Makhtumkuli's great love was a "beautiful and literate" girl named Mengli (whose real name was said to be Yangybek). But while the young Makhtumkuli was wandering and studying at madrasahs, Mengli was forcibly married off to another.

Makhtumkuli refers often to "Majnun" in his poems. The tale of Layla and Majnun is something like the Central Asian version of "Romeo and Juliet." For several hundred years, people across the Middle East and Inner Asia have been familiar with the story and know that Layla's father forbade her from marrying the young man, who became "Majnun," or "the madman" and wandered lonely for the rest of his life.

Makhtumkuli was heartbroken by the loss of Mengli but married another woman whom he appears not to have loved. He had two boys, both of whom died while still children. He was also taken captive, possible several times, during his life.

As is true of all the world's great poets, Makhtumkuli draws on his experiences of love and loss to produce verse that expresses the inevitable feelings and emotions all people have at some time during their lives.

But fast forwarding to the present, there are elements of Makhtumkuli's works that speak more specifically to the suffering and hopes of the Turkmen people today.

Turkmenistan currently has one of the most repressive governments in the world. The rights of the people are ignored by the government, the country's wealth is spent on luxuries for the few at the top, and all too often it seems there is no possibility for change.

Makhtumkuli wrote in "Dawn is the Time:"
Though you might rule this world, so stark in trust,
Come next century you'll be but dust.

As they have for centuries, Central Asian governments today try to co-opt clerics and such was the case in Makhtumkuli's time also.

This from "Unholiness:"
The call to prayer can scarcely stir a martyr.
The studies of the mullahs are in vain.
Now tea and "nas"* are all the Kazis** know.
Corruption shows, with all its foul stigmata.

But also among his works is a poem entitled "Exhortation in Time of Trouble," which brings hope to the Turkmen people by urging the various Turkmen tribes to unite.
If Turkmens would only tighten the Belt of Determination
They could drink the Red Sea in their strength.
So let the tribes of Teke, Yomut, Gokleng, Yazir and Alili
Unite into one proud nation.
What is Soul? Makhtumkuli tries to understand it.
Let us not be subjugated by the Kyzylbash!
Grant us a union of the Teke and Yomut.

-- Bruce Pannier
* An intoxicating tobacco mixture that is popular in Central Asia
** Clerical judges
Sales have been plummeting recently at the Dordoy Bazaar in Bishkek. (file photo)
There is a fierce debate in Kyrgyzstan about the merits of the country joining a customs union with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, but for merchants at two of Kyrgyzstan's biggest bazaars the answer would be "yes" and the sooner the better.

Sales at the Dordoy Bazaar in Bishkek and the Kara Suu Bazaar near Osh are down -- way down.

The reason is some 75 percent of the goods sold at the Dordoy Bazaar and some 85 percent of the goods sold at the Kara Suu Bazaar come from China and the two bazaars' main customer, Kazakhstan, is a member of the customs union, which has strict rules on the reexport of goods.

The chairwoman of the Dordoy trade complex, Damira Doolotalieva, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Azattyk, that Kazakhstan bought some 70 percent of the goods from the Dordoy Bazaar last year.

She said that, after Kazakhstan introduced limits on the purchase of goods from Dordoy, "trade at the market fell significantly."

Doolotalieva said the merchants at Dordoy do not know what to do. Many, she said, have taken out loans from banks to run their stalls at the bazaar and with drastically reduced sales the merchants have no way to repay the loans.

"Because of this, merchants are ready to support Kyrgyzstan's entry into the customs union," she said and added, "If the Cabinet of Ministers keep ignoring the demands of the merchants, more than 60,000 of them are prepared to go out and rally for their rights."

If the current situation continues much longer, Doolotalieva said, the bazaar might have to close.

The owner of Dordoy Bazaar, Askar Salymbekov, said the only way to keep the bazaar running is for Kyrgyzstan to enter the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

Kazakhstan implemented customs union rules in 2011 but much of the problem at the Dordoy Bazaar started later when Kazakh border guards stopped allowing people to carry goods across the border on foot.

PHOTO GALLERY: Bishkek's Dordoy Bazaar

The situation at the Kara Suu Bazaar in southern Kyrgyzstan is equally grim.

The bazaar is located right on the border with Uzbekistan but that border, which is the gateway to Uzbekistan's 30 million potential customers, is almost always closed and has been for years now. Adding to the problem, recent heightened tensions on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border south of Kara Suu have led to a large drop in trade between the two countries during the crisis.

Kazakhstan's enforcement of customs union rules means the Kara Suu Bazaar has lost its last major market for its goods.

Kyrgyzstan's Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev was just in Moscow discussing his country's entry into the customs union. He indicated that Kyrgyzstan's membership is still months away but he mentioned the importance of the two bazaars where "tens of thousands of people are working" and said his government is considering measures to keep the bazaars functioning.

Some aren't convinced that joining the customs union will provide salvation for Kyrgyzstan's bazaars. Since most of the goods at the bazaars come from China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, the customs union's regulations on the reexport of goods would probably still apply.

Kyrgyz economic analyst Azamat Akeleev told Azattyk that merchants are in a difficult situation and have little choice but to support Kyrgyzstan's entry into the customs union. But he said Russia and Kazakhstan would likely view the products at bazaars such as Dordoy as being "contraband goods."

-- Bruce Pannier, based on reporting by Bakyt Asanov with contributions from Gulaiym Ashekeeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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