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Qishloq Ovozi

The tradition of featuring portraits on tombstones comes from Russia. (file photo)

If you walk through a cemetery in former Soviet Central Asia and take a look around, you’re likely to find someone looking back. Several people, actually.

They’re the portraits etched on some of the tombstones, copied from photographs provided by family or friends.

Inscriptions on tombstones frequently tell visitors what the person might have accomplished, when they were born, when they died, maybe that they were married, or had children. But a portrait shows what the person buried there looked like at some point in their life.

A local imam in Turkmenistan's southwestern Balkan Province wants such portraits removed from tombstones.

Imam Sayat Gulbaev*, of the Bereket district, cited conservative interpretations of the Koran that prohibit depictions of human beings as grounds for removing the portraits.

But while the Turkmen are predominantly Muslims, the Turkmen government is absolutely secular, so there seems to be more to this tale than the whim of a local cleric.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, spoke with a person who recently visited the Bayram Shehit cemetery on the outskirts of the town of Bereket. There, this visitor found that 76 of the tombstones were being catalogued for -- for lack of a better word -- defacement.

This visitor went to the Bayram Shehit cemetery to visit the grave of his son, which has a tombstone with his son’s portrait on it. He said he was informed that, according to Gulbaev’s orders, relatives of those laid to rest in those graves are obliged to somehow erase the portraits of their deceased loved ones from these tombstones -- by painting over them, covering them, whatever it takes so the portraits are no longer visible.

Azatlyk called Gulbaev to ask about him about this matter. But when the imam understood someone from Azatlyk was calling him, he hung up.

Other people in the area spoke with Azatlyk, though. They said they were aware of the order to remove portraits from tombstones.

They also said Gulbaev is well-known in the Bereket community. For several years, he has been preaching against worshipers marking the passing of loved ones on the third, seventh, and 40th days after their death, and, according to some Bereket residents, local clerics have been forbidden from attending these anniversaries.

This whole story seemed strange. Clerics have comparatively minor influence in Turkmenistan, and they almost certainly do not make policy -- local or national -- without approval from the government.

After Azatlyk first aired the story of plans for the Shehit cemetery, Gulbaev appears to have reconsidered his order to remove portraits from tombstones. The visitor to the cemetery who contacted Azatlyk said the imam had phoned him to say the portrait on his son’s tombstone could remain.

Azatlyk then contacted the chief imam of Balkan Province, Akhmed Amanliev. Amanliev said he knew about the plans to remove or cover portraits of the deceased in the Bayram Shehit cemetery, but he said those plans had been canceled.

He indicated, however, that the order for the portraits' removal came not from the Bereket district imam but "from above" -- seemingly implying someone in the government.

As with so many things in Turkmenistan, it is difficult to see the logic behind this move.

Portraits on tombstones are certainly not a Turkmen, or even a Central Asian, tradition. It comes from Russia and therefore could be seen as a reminder of the region's many decades under Russian and Soviet rule.

The practice of having the portraits of the deceased etched on tombstones continues in Central Asia, but it appears to be losing popularity and is generally frowned upon by Islamic clerics in the region.

The reason Turkmenistan's government might want these tombstone portraits erased is unclear. No one in the government has commented on, or even acknowledged, such a move.

According to Balkan Province Imam Amanliev, the idea has been scrapped, but if this really is an order "from above," these images of the dead are marked for oblivion.

*CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to identify the local imam in Bereket district as Sayat Gulbaev.

Azatlyk Director Farruh Yusupov contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev, the current chairman of Tajikistan's upper house of parliament. (file photo)

The current chairman of Tajikistan's Majlisi Milli, the upper house of parliament, is slowly being stripped of all of his once-formidable powers.

For most of Tajikistan's 25 years of independence, Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev has been one of the most influential people in Tajikistan and was possibly the most powerful person in the country for a brief time.

The Tajik government is turning into what could be seen as a family business and it was probably inevitable that Ubaidulloev (maybe especially Ubaidulloev) would be removed from the political scene.

All the governments of Central Asia have their gray cardinals or other similar figures, without whose help it would be difficult for the region's leaders to rule.

The process of methodically undercutting Ubaidulloev's influence in Tajikistan is interesting because it shows what can happen when a leader feels comfortable enough to move against yesterday's ally of need.

Fall From Grace

The most public example of Ubaidulloev's fall from grace came on January 12 this year, at a session of the Dushanbe City Council when Tajik President Emomali Rahmon's 29-year-son Rustam was appointed mayor of Tajikistan's capital, a post Ubaidulloev had held for some 20 years.

But Ubaidulloev's fall started earlier than that.

Two years ago, the head of the Dushanbe department for construction, Saidsharif Anvarov, was detained along with several other people.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev talking to construction workers in Dushanbe. (file photo)
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev talking to construction workers in Dushanbe. (file photo)

One of Ubaidulloev's claims of success as mayor of Dushanbe has been the renovation of the Tajik capital, but it now appears that not all the money allocated for projects to modernize and beautify the city were actually spent on its intended purpose.

Anvarov has been a close associate of Ubaidulloev since around 2000 and was seen by some as being the former mayor's "right hand." He was head of the Dushanbe construction department for more than a decade before being detained.

Graft Convictions

In April, in a move that was every bit as significant for Ubaidulloev's future as losing the mayor's job, a Dushanbe court found Anvarov guilty of bribery and embezzlement during the construction of the Istiqlol medical center in the Tajik capital and sentenced him to 18 years in prison. It also ordered him to pay compensation amounting to some nine million somoni ($1.1 million).

Anvarov was not the only associate of Ubaidulloev put on trial.

Fazliddin Mahmudov, the head of the construction company Tojikkolkhozsohtmon, and his deputy Firuz Rahmanov, were sentenced to 18 years and five years in prison, respectively, for misuse of funds intended for the construction of low-income housing in Dushanbe.

Rahmanov was arrested as he was giving a bribe, on behalf of Anvarov, to officials from the national anticorruption agency of some $450,000. It represents an enormous sum in a country where the average yearly wage is less than $3,000

Mahmudov, like Anvarov, was ordered to pay nine million somoni in compensation.

Other associates of Ubaidulloev, who were all in charge of companies involved in Dushanbe construction, have also been found guilty of wrongdoing.

Tohirjon Tagoev (Zhilyostroy) Olim Sodikov (PMK No. 2780), Tohirjon Mirzojonov, (Honasoz), and Kosim Fathullozoda (Samand-2010) were each convicted of bribery and misuse of funds concerning the Istiqlol medical facility and ordered to pay stiff fines. They were also barred from engaging in business activities for the next 3-4 years.

Which brings us back to Ubaidulloev.

No Longer Untouchable

Once he was all but untouchable. Even Tajik President Emomali Rahmon had to tread carefully in dealing with him.

But now Ubaidulloev's support base has been chipped away and there are few, if any, left who could come to his aid.

President Rahmon told a February 15 meeting of Dushanbe officials and businessmen that some $100 million had been misspent in the construction of the Dushanbe Plaza complex and Istiqlol medical center. Ubaidulloev was ultimately responsible for both those projects..

Rahmon has tasked his son Rustam Emomali with leading the investigation into what happened to the money. He is supposed to have the findings ready by July 1.

That's probably the last day Ubaidulloev will be head of the Majlisi Milli and possibly one of the last days he will be a free man.

Salimjon Aioubov from RFE/RL's contributed to this report.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

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.