(WARNING: Long Post)
The First Book of the Week is Sovietstan, Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Taijikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan” by Erika Fatland, (translated by Kari Dickson), published in 2020.
In the past decade, the author personally visited countries whose names end in “stan” except for Afghanistan. Those Central Asian nations became, more or less, independent from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990’s.
The author accepted hospitality from numerous people in the region, and related the historical backdrops of the respective lands. She spoke with several people who thought life was better under the old Soviet system, because they had had education, healthcare and culture then. Americans would consider the said countries to be dictatorships, although the author courteously called their leaders “presidents.”
Turkmenistan has oil and gas, the latter of which it exports to China. Its geography is comprised of more than eighty percent desert. Its political system is authoritarian.
Claiming she was a “student” (but was actually a tourist collecting information to write her book) in order to obtain a visa that was issued to very few applicants to begin with, the author was supervised every second of her stay; limited to a maximum of three weeks.
The author saw only a few Mercedes (and hardly any other cars) on the eight-lane main roads in the capital, Ashgabat. The bus shelters were air-conditioned. Most of the buildings were made of white marble.
There were a luxury Ferris wheel, and bright, colorfully lit fountains at night. However, there were only three ATMs in the whole nation that accepted foreign bank cards. Seven days a week, cops surveiled people on the streets to enforce the 11pm curfew.
Photos of the “president” hung everywhere in public places. Starting in 1992, he provided free utilities and car fuel for everyone. In 1999, he declared himself the nation’s ruler for the rest of his life. He wrote a book called Ruhnama, meaning Book of the Soul. No one questioned its greatness. Or else. It became the only reading material in schools. No more science or humanities were taught.
In the course of about four years, the dictator rid his people of Soviet culture, and banned dogs and recorded music. The health and welfare systems went to hell. Although no one paid taxes, more than half of the people were unemployed. That explained the almost empty roads the author saw in the capital city. Mercifully, the dictator died in late 2006.
Another ruler replaced him who forced the people to read his books. The author visited a rural farming village where the people herded camels and goats. They spoke only Turkmen, not Russian.
When the author and a cab driver were in the desert where no one else was present for miles around, she asked him why people had only the highest praise for their leader — worshipped him like a god and would never dare say a negative word about him.
The driver criticized himself for not working hard enough. He said, “Each one of us has a responsibility to play our part and to help our country develop.” The author wrote that he was born into the system– had never known any other mentality. This aspect of authoritarianism that the author witnessed bears a chilling resemblance to a recent line of propaganda in the United States (!): “We’re all in this together.” Who paid people to say that??
The author was forced to attend a horse show, and the next day, horse races. Attendance was mandatory for the nation’s every town, all of which had hippodromes. The dictator was a jockey in one race, but he accidentally fell after his horse crossed the finish line first, of course. Security compelled all attendees to delete any presidential-mishap footage from their cameras. The next day, a bootleg clip of the embarrassment surfaced on YouTube, anyway.
Predictably, very few citizens of Turkmenistan could afford to stay in the skyscrapers in the resort town of Turkmenbashi. The ones who could afford to go anywhere, holidayed on Turkey’s beaches instead because the former offered “Soviet-style service, bad food and no Internet.” Moreover, Turkmenistan’s dictator owned and controlled nearly all of their homeland’s hotels, restaurants and shops.
Kazakhstan— the most resource-rich nation in Central Asia– is flush with oil, gas, minerals, gold, coal and uranium; the first of which it extracts through Russian pipelines.
The author was pleased to see that the country had an open, Westernized society. It purchases most of its consumer goods from China. People spend their leisure time horse-racing and playing a game mounted on horses, batting around a goat carcass. They eat horse meat and drink soured mare’s milk regularly.
The author was able to travel around unaccompanied by a chaperone. Even so, at the entrance to the capital city of Astana, all buses’ passengers had their identity papers and baggage checked by security, while she and her cab driver weren’t subjected to what Americans would consider undue privacy intrusion.
As an aside, the privacy pendulum has finally swung the other way for political candidates in the United States. In the last several decades, in every election, every candidate’s political enemies have subjected candidates to increasingly punitive fishing-expeditions (It might be recalled that vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and her husband were mercilessly put through the wringer in 1984).
Supposedly, a candidate’s history of financial dealings are an indicator of a candidate’s character. BUT, it is not necessarily an indicator of how well a candidate will do his or her job in the elective office.
Case in point: President Jimmy Carter’s tax returns were presumably squeaky-clean– as was his character— but there is general consensus that he did a poor job as president. That just shows that the real purpose of the privacy intrusion has been political vengeance!
There are plenty of ways other than scrutinizing personal financial behavior, to try to ascertain whether a candidate will be the public servant the voters want them to be.
Anyway, by the early 1950’s, high incidences of birth defects, mental illness, high blood pressure, and a cancer cluster plagued the region of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, thanks to secret testing of weapons of mass destruction by the Soviets beginning in 1949. The author learned this by personally visiting with the victims and their descendants, only the poorest of whom were still living there.
Tajikistan is resource-poor and has primitive infrastructure. Its geography is comprised of more than ninety percent mountains. In autumn 1991, the Communist party candidate won the election for president. He became increasingly unpopular. For, between June 1992 and March 1993, the nation suffered a bloody civil war, in which tens of thousands died. During the fighting, “Having regained power in parts of the country, the Rahmon [Nabiyev] government chose revenge rather than reconciliation, in keeping with old clan culture.”
Tajikistan’s fourth largest town lacks full-time electricity and heat, and has no indoor plumbing. Most of the people who live there are alcoholics. The vast majority of its people are Sunni Muslims. The men go to Russia to earn money to send back to their families. Some divorce their wives and never return home. But such income accounts for about half of the nation’s gross domestic product.
The author’s cab driver bribed three different border guards to minimize trouble when she traveled from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan. In the latter country, it was refreshing for her to see an absence of the dictator’s portraits everywhere, and to hear people speaking freely, both verbally and in the press, even negatively (!) about their government, with no punishment whatsoever.
Kyrgyzstan is, comparatively, the freest nation in Central Asia– the first to have a Parliament. Nonetheless, people tolerate corruption and nepotism from their leaders to avoid repeating the two difficult, past periods of political instability they suffered in the past three decades. They’ll vote for the same criminals over and over– which shows how much they want peace at all costs.
Also, at the time of the book’s writing, they lived in a culture in which any man could take a bride (even a Russian one) by abducting her, and she could not protest. He could even take more than one wife. In most cases the bride was likely headed for a life of marriage and children anyway, as she was unlikely to have an education, her own money, or somewhere to flee. Most families encouraged the practice.
Uzbekistan is one of the most oppressive States in Central Asia. The author wrote, “With great cunning, Karimov has used the fear of ethnic violence, Islamist fundamentalism and unstable neighbors as an excuse to rule with an iron fist.” The government’s imposed collectivist Soviet model of cotton growing was an epic economic fail. The author was subjected to unrelenting public scrutiny via police officers and video cameras everywhere she went.
Read the book to learn of numerous other adventures the author had in the aforementioned countries of Central Asia.
The Second Book of the Week is “Kabul Beauty School, An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil” by Deborah Rodriguez with Kristin Ohlson, published 2007.
This career memoir described the author’s early-21st century experiences in Afghanistan, teaching young women how to become beauticians. She wrote, “I love the Afghans, but their true national sport is gossip.”
The American author moved to Afghanistan in May 2002. Her mother owned a hair salon in Holland in the state of Michigan, so she had grown up immersed in that business’s culture. When she volunteered with an international aid organization to get away from her second husband, who was abusive, she realized her calling.
Also, the author wanted to help Afghan females, in one of the few environments that was strictly for them, where they could escape from the daily oppression they suffered, stemming from their culture and from their country’s war-torn situation.
The people of Afghanistan are descended from all different rivalrous tribes. Afghan females are treated as second-class citizens, especially if they are Muslims. They are still forced into arranged marriages. A prospective groom’s mother chooses a first wife for her own son. The men are allowed to take on additional wives if they so choose.
The later wives are those whose reputations have been ruined for one reason or another; some through no fault of their own. If they are not virgins when they are first chosen to be wives, say, due to having been raped, they are damaged goods, and might have an unusually horrible prospect pushed on them– one who is decades older, more abusive than usual, or poverty stricken.
The author’s Afghan friends planned to set up a husband for her. She had two previous failed marriages. The man they chose seemed nice and wealthy enough. He had an oil-drilling business in Saudi Arabia. By the way, the friends were finally pressed to mention, though, that he already had a first wife and seven daughters back in Saudi Arabia. He was hoping the author could bear him a son. The author had already had two sons from her first marriage, living in the United States.
The author felt obliged to get married because any woman seen alone with any man, engaged or not, was assumed to be a prostitute.
Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details about Afghan culture, the hardships the author faced in furthering her career, and more about her life.