Turkmenistan's Council of Elders just met in the capital, Ashgabat. It has long been the custom for the council to laud the alleged achievements of the president, and this latest meeting was no exception. The Council of Elders bestowed another award on President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and the president honored the equally well-established tradition of lauding the country's supposed achievements, this time ahead of the 20th anniversary of the United Nations recognizing Turkmenistan as a neutral country.
I have long had questions about these elders: how they receive their positions and what they do. And fortunately for me, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, recently interviewed a man who is now a former elder.
Jora Aga has an amazing tale to tell, although he told it only reluctantly to our Azatlyk correspondent.
It started with a question about why Jora had shaved his "beautiful beard."
"I'm a pensioner, and when I became a pensioner suddenly I was invited to sit in places of honor at weddings and events with other elders, many of whom had beards. I had a grandson, so I decided one day I should grow a beard," he said.
But he continued, "If I had known I would face so many difficulties, I never would have grown it."
Jora's beard grew long. "It covered my entire chest," he explained.
His beard came to the attention of the village chief, who invited Jora for a conversation one day.
"He said, 'You are a confident speaker in front of people, you also have a beautiful beard. It suits you. We need people like you to greet the masses. So what would you think if we invited you to celebrations and mass events?'"
It sounded like a great honor as well as potentially being a bit of fun, so Jora accepted.
"I said yes," Jora recalled, "after two or three days the village chief came to my home."
The chief told Jora elders who participate in public events needed the proper attire and offered, for 340 manats, to purchase such clothing for Jora.
"He brought me a hat" -- the large white fur hat of the Turkmen -- "and a gown," Jora said. "The ordeal started from there."
"They started to take me to events in the village, then around the district. They asked me to speak and I spoke. Then they started taking me to provincial events, and two or three times they asked me to come to the capital for national events," Jora said.
On His Own Dime
While officials were pleased to have Jora attend these events, they did not offer him free transportation. That money came from Jora's pocket. Jora said he regularly attended 10 or 15 events a month, sometimes even as many as 20 public gatherings.
"If there was a wedding,' Jora please come.'"
"If there was a commemoration banquet, 'Jora come.'"
"If they were planting grain or cotton, 'Jora come.'"
"If they were harvesting grain or cotton, 'Jora come.'"
Jora said he was often away from his home and that it became a problem.
"My wife started nagging, saying, 'It is either these events or us, or make them pay you something for your time.'"
He went on: "I told her you cannot get snow from officials in winter, let alone receive a salary [for attending public events]."
Our correspondent mentioned there were reports that the elders received gifts when they attended high-level events.
"People might talk about this," Jora responded, "but in reality, no such thing exists."
So why didn't Jora simply resign from his position as a venerated elder?
"I tried. I went to the village chief and told him I wanted to stop participating in mass events. He said no, because my name was already written down on the official list of invitees," Jora said.
"I went to the district chief's office and requested my name be taken off the [official] list," Jora continued. "They said, 'We don't invite all old men to events. If we want, there are many people who could be invited, but some have problems growing beards and others have problems in the background checks that go back seven generations.'"
Such generation checks were instituted several years ago and are mandatory for people seeking posts in the government. Anyone who had an ancestor who committed a crime, even more than 100 years ago, is barred from receiving state posts; and, more generally, it complicates the lives and aspirations of those living in Turkmenistan today if they had such an ancestor.
"I realized I couldn't escape," Jora said, "So I decided to play a trick. I told them one of my relatives in the seven-generation list had a criminal record, but they didn't pay any attention."
Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say, so Jora resorted to...the barber.
"I went straight to the barber shop and told him to shave off my beard," Jora said. "I was relieved, as if a great weight had been taken off my shoulders."
It was the end of Jora's days of attending public events.
"These days I shave every day, or at least every other day. Thank God, I can spend time with my grandsons, I don't leave home, and my wife has stopped nagging."