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Turkmenistan: Banned Novelist Triumphs Despite Official Pressure

Rahim Esenov (file photo) (RFE/RL) Turkmen novelist Rahim Esenov is in New York today to receive a major award highlighting literary freedom around the globe. The fact that 79-year-old Esenov will be on hand to accept the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award is remarkable in itself. Turkmen authorities banned him from leaving the country following his arrest in 2004 over his historical novel "The Crowned Wanderer" (also translated as "The Hallowed Wanderer"). But last week, was allowed an exit visa amid pressure from international rights groups and the assistance of the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan.

PRAGUE, April 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The protagonist of Esenov's novel is Bayram Khan, a medieval poet, philosopher, and army general who is said to have defended the future Turkmenistan against the forces of disintegration.

But the country's authoritarian president, Saparmurat Niyazov, publicly denounced the novel as "historically inaccurate" and banned it in 1997 after the author refused to redact it to Niyazov's liking.

Esenov, who also works as a correspondent for RFE/RL, was detained in 2004 for trying to smuggle copies of his book into the country and charged with trying to foster "social, ethnic, and religious hatred." In 2005, he was forced to sign a pledge not to leave the country and made to check in with local police every week.

Life Is Writing

Esenov is a former correspondent for "Pravda" in Soviet Turkmenistan and a minister of culture under the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. He has authored more than 20 books in a life that he says revolves around his writing.

"Undoubtedly, the purpose and the meaning of my life are journalism and writing," he says.

Esenov remained active after Turkmenistan gained independence from the USSR in 1991, including writing for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. He says that neither his reporting work nor his historical writings met with official approval.

Esenov's "The Crowned Wanderer" ("Ventsenosniy skitalets") is set in the 16th-century Mogul Empire . It centers around the life of Bayram Khan, a warrior and man of letters who fights to save the Turkmen nation from fragmentation.
"What's so special about Bayram Khan? He considered religious tolerance his major goal," Esenov says about his protagonist. "For him, it didn't matter whether it was a Christian church, a Muslim mosque, or a Jewish synagogue. In his view, all people belonged to one God and should have believed in one, single god. He [himself] was exactly this kind of person."

Target Of Repression

Esenov has suffered at the hands of Turkmen authorities ever since Niyazov denounced and then banned the novel. In February 2004, after Esenov suffered a stroke, he was forcibly removed from his hospital bed and thrown in detention. As the international outcry gathered force, Turkmen authorities released him -- but not before confiscating and destroying 800 copies of "The Crowned Wanderer," a move that Esenov described as an act of "vandalism."

"I believe that despite all obstacles, good will always beat evil. This [belief] gives me strength and support."

Authorities also sought to punish Esenov for failing to report telephone conversations with a staunch critic of Niyazov's who now lives in exile, former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliyev. Esenov subsequently ignored an order to cease his work for RFE/RL, and he remained under surveillance.

This week's trip abroad marks Esenov's first since the official campaign against him began.

Good Vs. Evil

The PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award honors international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. This year's prize is being awarded jointly to Esenov and to Mohammed Benchicou, an Algerian writer.

Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems announced the awards on April 1, and praised both recipients for refusing to let their governments control their countries' histories.

Esenov told RFE/RL that his constant faith in good over evil is what fuels his activities in the face of official pressure.

"I am an optimist by nature. I believe in goodness in every human being," he says. "I do. I believe that despite all obstacles, good will always beat evil. This [belief] gives me strength and support."

'The Crowned Wanderer'

'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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