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Turkmen Celebrate Their National Poet

An old Soviet stamp celebrating the Turkmen national poet Makhtumkuli Feraghy. (click to see entire image)
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

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.​

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


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