Friday, April 28, 2006

If we did not laugh at the Turkmenbashi we would have to weep

Good David Remnick in the New Yorker:
Of the fifteen states of the former Soviet empire, Turkmenistan, just north of Iran, is the one that has turned out to be a cruel blend of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and L. Frank Baum’s Oz. Not long after the Soviet collapse, in 1991, a former Communist Party hack named Saparmurat Niyazov became President-for-life, dubbed himself Turkmenbashi—Leader of All the Turkmen—and commenced building the strangest, most tragicomic cult of personality on the Eurasian landmass. Doctors there now take an oath not to Hippocrates but to Turkmenbashi; the month of January is now called Turkmenbashi; and in the capital, Ashgabat, there is, atop the Arch of Neutrality, a two-hundred-and-fifty-foot gold statue of Turkmenbashi that, like George Hamilton, automatically rotates to face the sun.

It is extremely difficult to get a visa. Journalists can visit only rarely. But imagine a society in which the ubiquitous, inescapable leader’s image (on the currency, on billboards, on television screens night and day) is that of a saturnine frump who resembles Ernest Borgnine somewhere between “Marty” and “McHale’s Navy.”

Niyazov is a leader of whims. He has banned opera, ballet, beards, long hair, makeup (for television anchors), and gold-capped teeth. He demands that drivers pass a “morality test.” At his command, the word for “April” became Gurbansoltan eje, the name of his late mother. Evidently, he prizes fruit: there is now a national holiday commemorating local melons. And, as if the shade of Orwell were not sufficiently present in Turkmenistan, Niyazov has established, despite an abysmal human-rights record, a Ministry of Fairness.

Rahim Esenov, a veteran of the Second World War, is unlucky enough to be a novelist and journalist under the reign of Turkmenbashi, and in February, 2004, he was placed under house arrest by the Turkmen security police. He was accused of smuggling eight hundred copies of his novel “The Crowned Wanderer” from Moscow to his apartment in Ashgabat. When the novel, which is set in the Mogul era, was first published, in 1997, Niyazov denounced Esenov for “historical errors.” After suffering a second heart attack, Esenov, who is seventy-nine, was taken to the hospital, but three days later he was removed for interrogation. The security police charged him with “inciting social, national, and religious hatred.” And Esenov had undoubtedly given further offense to the regime by sending periodic reports to the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty.

Esenov had every reason to believe that, like so many other members of the Turkmen intelligentsia, he would suffer for a long time. But when PEN American Center, the writers’ organization, sent word, through the American Embassy in Ashgabad, that Esenov had won its Freedom to Write Award and invited him to its annual dinner in New York, the regime, sensing an international scandal, relented and let him go.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Love, love, love

As an erstwhile early riser when we lived in London, I spent an alarming amount of time listening to the first half-hour of Radio 4's daily programming (well, the first quarter-hour, in any case). So I was pleased to read Simon Jenkins's appreciation today, even as I lament the passing of the UK theme:
It may have been a device of British intelligence. It is still a work of genius. Radio 4's opening half hour schedule defies definition or explanation, but the BBC meddles with it at our peril.
The 5.30-6.00 slot has always been a scheduling black hole, defying definition or explanation: the shipping forecast, Prayer for the Day and Farming Today. A Broadcasting House sage once told me that it dates from when the BBC was penetrated by MI5. The spooks noticed that nobody above the level of office cleaner ever listened at that time of day, so they quietly colonised it as a sort of Voice of Britain. It would be dedicated to "olde English values", patriotic fare put out before the commies arrived at 6.00.

Core values were duly identified as folk music, the sea, the countryside and the Church of England. [Fritz] Spiegl, a refugee from Hitler's Germany, was commissioned to write the theme, evoking the empire and Rule Britannia. This was followed by a weather forecast for sailors, morning prayers for Her Majesty and something for our valiant farmers. Strong evidence for this conspiracy thesis was the shipping forecast. It still goes out in an unknown tongue and is of no obvious use in the age of sat nav and online 24/7 weather intelligence. The shipping forecast evokes an image of some windjammer caught in a gale in South Utsire, its first mate buried in the fo'c'sle straining through crackling cans to hear some BBC boffin incanting: "Backing Rockall fair moderate veering good falling slowly occasionally poor ... Scilly automatic very moderate 10 miles ... Cape Wrath one thousand and eight mainly fair rising more slowly." He is probably on the rocks in minutes.

I had always assumed the language to be a lost St Kildan dialect used by the army to communicate with agents on enemy submarines in the North Sea. It should be preserved in the Imperial War Museum. Last month the forecaster broke cover by briefly lapsing into English. He said he would repeat a line of incomprehensible text as "that was rather confusing".

After that comes Prayer for the Day, an Alan Bennett "sardine tin of life" anecdote plus an imprecation to the Almighty (possibly of help to the wrecked windjammer or the submariner). Finally we get Farming Today. This is the Archers on speed. An industry comprising just 2% of the population is given 15 minutes each morning to demand more public money. It has been doing so for as long as I can remember - with never a BBC slot for carmakers, hoteliers or hedge-fund salesmen.