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Turkmenistan: building creative connections in one of the world’s least-visited countries

Writers spoke with students at International Turkmen Turkish University (here in traditional Turkmen dress, the school uniform).
Writers spoke with students at International Turkmen Turkish University (here in traditional Turkmen dress, the school uniform).
After leading writing workshops, meeting with students, educators, and leaders in the literary community, taking in the tile mosaics of the Registan and sampling the plov, it was time for International Writing Program (IWP) reading tour participants Ann Hood, Stephen Kuusisto, Chinelo Okparanta, and  Christopher Merrill  to bid farewell to Uzbekistan.
The ruins of ancient Merv, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the 3rd millennium BC.
The ruins of ancient Merv, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the 3rd millennium BC.
Last week, the writers continued their tour of Central Asia, traveling south to Turkmenistan to foster creative ties with a country that hosts only 7,000 tourists a year, making it one of the world’s least visited places (behind even Afghanistan and North Korea).    

Near the Turkmen city of Mary, the writers visited the ruins of ancient Merv, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. Merv, once an oasis-city on the historic Silk Road, is now the site of an archeological dig.

Shards of pottery found at the dig site in ancient Merv.
Shards of pottery found at the dig site in ancient Merv.

“Watching the painstaking work of sifting through dirt for shards of colorful pottery, I remembered my parents' story of watching Pompeii getting excavated when they lived in Naples in the early 1950s” Hood blogged.

The writers also visited the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, considered a pearl of Islamic architecture, and met with librarians at the Mary library. Despite its sumptuous furnishing, the library, built in 2011, seemed to house few books other than Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s selected writings and no readers, at the time IWP visited.         

The Palace of Creativity in Ashgabat.
The Palace of Creativity in Ashgabat.
The arts in Turkmenistan are closely overseen by the government, the writers soon learned. (Press freedoms are severely curtailed in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). Portraits of the president hang everywhere, prominently in the Palace of Creativity in Ashgabat, where writers met with editors of various magazines and newspapers.

IWP writers meeting with editors of various magazines and newspapers in Ashgabat.
IWP writers meeting with editors of various magazines and newspapers in Ashgabat.

 

 “That portrait gets rotated every few months throughout the entire country,” says IWP program officer Kelly Bedeian, who traveled with the group. “Considering that it is hung in just about every room we entered anywhere, switching them every few months is a big job!”  Cameras from a state-run news crew filmed portions of the group’s visit.

Novelist Ann Hood engages with students at International Turkmen Turkish University.
Novelist Ann Hood engages with students at International Turkmen Turkish University.
Still, the writers managed to engage students at International Turkmen Turkish University and Turkmen State University, discussing literature and the craft of writing. Poet and memoirist Kuusisto (who is blind) also blogged about the trip, particularly his experience meeting with the disabled community.

Poet and memoirist Stephen Kuusisto speaks to the Blind and Deaf Society.
Poet and memoirist Stephen Kuusisto speaks to the Blind and Deaf Society.
 “They wanted to know many things: do people with disabilities in the US have jobs? How do they go to college? […] Someone asked me why the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities […] How do you tell people who are still suffering for freedom that there are senators in the USA who […] refuse to endorse freedom and dignity for people with disabilities to make a crude point--namely that no one tells America what to do?”  Kuusisto asked.

Chris Merrill teaching at Turkmen State University.
Chris Merrill teaching at Turkmen State University.
 “This is exactly the kind of meaningful discussion and exchange reading tours make possible,” says IWP director Chris Merrill. “By allowing American writers to share their work and discover the culture and literature of these countries, we provide space for interaction and collaboration.” IWP has hosted more than 1,400 writers from 140 countries in its annual fall residency program, but no writer from Turkmenistan has ever participated. With the new creative contacts made during the tour, the hope is that this may soon change. “IWP would love to host a Turkmen writer in the future,” Merrill says.

A portrait of Turkmen President Gurbanguly M. Berdimuhamedov at the entrance to the children's amusement park.
A portrait of Turkmen President Gurbanguly M. Berdimuhamedov at the entrance to the children's amusement park.
 “What an interesting country Turkmenistan is!” Hood wrote in her final blog entry about the trip. “Snapdragons and roses blooming in kaleidescopic proportions. Fountains everywhere, often changing colors Las Vegas style at night. We met poets, students, librarians, teachers, and had special sessions with people with disabilities. All fascinating encounters.”

IWP reading tours, organized each spring in partnership with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, are designed to introduce American writers to a country or region with a relatively sparse history of literary liaisons with the United States and strengthen ties between creative communities. Visit IWP on Facebook for more photos of the tour and updates on other IWP programming.