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Erasing Images Of The Dead In Southwestern Turkmenistan

  • Bruce Pannier

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

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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. Content will draw 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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