Amid the many efforts Turkmenistan makes to gain international visibility are the large international scientific conferences the government stages on topics relating to Turkmen history and culture. These events are often majestic affairs broadcast on national TV.
It is no surprise that these events are also extremely popular among scholars who are either curious about, or genuinely interested in Turkmenistan. They are also a perfect occasion to interact with local elites, an opportunity I have enjoyed on several occasions. At a recent conference, the day before the event’s opening ceremony, the organizers hinted that there would be a surprise.
The gathering had been moved to Ashgabat from the west of the country to enable the president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, to attend the opening immediately after his return to the Turkmen capital from a visit to China. On several previous visits, I had been told the president would show up at an event I was attending, but it had never happened. But this time, this promise sounded different.
Presidential aides told all us attendees that the next day we would have to wake up early. In a fashion that I have learned to appreciate with the passage of years, they did not give us an exact time. After all, nobody likes to hear “you have to wake up at 4:30 am.” Ultimately, when they finally told us “maybe 5 am, or 4:30,” it did not seem so inconvenient.
The conference hosted more than 300 delegates, including ethnic Turkmen from around the world. For those selected for the special presidential audience, the organizers asked attendees to wear either national traditional attire or a suit. They seemed very concerned with protocol, and they held evening briefings to explain how we were supposed to behave.
Not everyone was invited to attend the presidential audience. The hierarchy and criteria for inviting people to meet the president was unintelligible to most guests. I was invited to the evening briefing, together with a friend I had brought along. But at the end of the meeting, one of the staff, whom I had known for some years, delicately suggested that I shave and wear a suit to meet the president. I smiled and told him that it was impossible, since I had neither a suit nor a razor. After all, I usually wear a beard and I was not going to shave for the president. The aide probably thought that I was joking and did not insist.
The next morning we received calls in our hotel rooms at around 4:30 am, went for breakfast at 5 am, and were told to be ready to go within the next half hour. My friend had shaved, as he would usually do, and had put on a suit. I did not, but I bet on elegance instead. I put on handmade clothes tailored by a family atelier in my home town.
The presidential aide I knew came to inquire about my suit, and, upon seeing that I was not wearing one, said that maybe it would be better if I meet the president during one of my future visits. I was thus “de-selected” for the special presidential audience, and instead joined the group that was to attend the event opening ceremony.
My friend went with others tapped for the special presidential meeting and reported that the atmosphere was quite informal. He even recalled a similar situation some years before: an American professor, after many years working in a Gulf state, was supposed to meet a member of the royal family, but was initially denied a meeting by royal advisers.
After the professor managed to secure the meeting, his discussion lasted more than an hour and the royal family member thanked him for his advice and the enjoyable conversation. The reality is that sometimes a ruler’s entourage is afraid of making risky decisions. If aides think there is a chance that their boss will not like you, they prefer not to take a risk.
I believe that Berdymukhamedov would not have minded my beard. He would have asked me, like everyone else, where I was from. We would have smiled at each other, shaken hands and that would be it. But for my acquaintance, the risk of allowing me, with my beard and not having a suit, to attend the special reception was understandably too great in a situation where a wrong decision could cost him his career.
Waiting is part of the protocol of most visits in Turkmenistan – a ritual to remind you of the importance of the official who has received you.
Both groups arrived well before 7 am, but the ceremony was not to take place until two hours later. We all had to go through an airport-like security procedure; all electronics had to be left with presidential minders, to be collected after the reception was over. I failed to understand the reason why I could not keep my old phone, good only for calls and text messages, with me. At any rate, there was no room for discussion. I had to hand over everything. Virtually nothing but the clothes attendees were wearing was allowed into the building.
While the “elected ones” waited in a room with snacks and drinks, the rest of the guests attended the opening ceremony in a large theater. A huge portrait of the president was hanging on the back of the stage, to preside over the distribution of medals, nameplates and large bouquets of roses to people who had, in one way or another, contributed to the advancement of Turkmen studies. The stage was also decorated with roses, and my conservative estimate was that over $10,000 had been spent on the flowers.
The president initially went to the guest room to shake hands and take a picture with the selected international guests. I was told he greeted each of them individually, asked where they were from, and shook hands with each of them. In the end, they would take a group picture that would be published in the country's leading newspapers.
He finally appeared at the main gathering, beaming and in excellent shape. I took particular note of his physical fitness, given that he reputedly has diabetes, which is possibly the reason why Ashgabat has a surprisingly high number of shops selling products for diabetic people.
Pictures of Berdymukhamedov engaged in all sorts of tasks – from crop harvesting to driving a speed boat and performing surgery – are found in every corner of Turkmenistan. Berdymukhamedov, then, is omnipresent in the lives of all Turkmen. Yet few will ever have an opportunity to meet him in person, and shake his hand. And those who do, will have to wait. Wait, and possibly shave.
Begench Nurgeldy is a pseudonym for a scholar who specializes in Central Asian affairs.