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I was 16 years old when I first heard of Turkmenistan. It was junior year of high school: third period, some random midweek morning. I sat with my classmates in our ‘Islam & The West’ elective, having just spent the previous days discussing Edward Said, Ramzi Yousef, and the assorted AIM chats from the evening previous.
Our teacher stood in front of the drawn screen and informed us we had a guest speaker. A former student, a few years removed from college – Marie? Katie? her name escapes me – who would be speaking to us on her Peace Corps experience in Turkmenistan. We were fine with it – eighty percent of the class had skimmed the assigned readings, anyway. Might as well have the period focused on something other than homework.
She began, but none of us had the faintest idea what she was talking about – Turkmenistan was about foreign as Medicare or graduate school. She showed the maps; she ran the history; she tried to offer a few words, looking for comprehension in our eyes. Nothing stuck. We looked at the pictures glowing on the screen – sand, and sand, and gilded fountains, and sand. The land was another semi-small scrawl on the Asian landscape. Just another ‘stan, to a series of apathetic teens.
And then, the woman mentioned something about a rotating statue: a golden icon that followed the sun. She mentioned the man for whom the statue was created, and the fact that the man – the former Saparmurat Niyazov – had changed his name to ‘Turkmenbashi,’ the Father of the Turkmen. A despot, rechristened. (And a coastal town Krasnovodsk, renamed.)
She then mentioned something about another change: the months of the year, and how they related to his family, and how none of us would ever be able to conjure a better gift for our mothers than Turkmenbashi’s choice to swap ‘April’ for ‘Gurbansultan.’ And then the woman mentioned the man’s holy text, his Ruhnama, and how it’s displayed on public airwave and mandated in education and revered as the lodestar for all Turkmen, whether near or abroad.
We leaned forward in our seats, fuddled, eager to hear more. We were 16, 17, and suddenly this – this was fascinating. This was bizarre. This was, in only the way a true jarheaded teen can find, cool.
But this woman, as she spoke – as she spoke only a decade our senior – she was … unenthusiastic. Distant. She carried none of the bug-eyed gleam me and my classmates found through her presentation. She wasn’t pessimistic, per se – but nor was she displaying any notable pride in the presentation, or in the people. She was conveying this thoroughly fantastical world, thick with Neverlandian detail and intrigue, but she seemed to find none of the magic in the acts she shared.
Face slightly wan, she wrapped her presentation, answered our questions, and flicked the projector off, taking the images of anomie and ludicrousness with it. We closed the period, and scattered to our next class.
Turkmenistan wouldn’t cross my mind for another half-dozen years.
Of course, it’s now entirely apparent why this woman carried no sense pleasure in conveying these stories, in sharing the loon-bin despotism still found in Ashgabat. These weren’t just tales of her travels: these weren’t Kiplingesque stories to be rehashed for all those American teens staring up at her. This wasn’t, despite how it may have appeared to us, some form of modern Orientalism. These were people with whom the woman lived, and with whom she struggled, and for whom she continued to care. This was, at the risk of sounding trite, her life. All those changes that we’d found fascinating was simply the insanity that distracted from the country’s myriad issues.
And so, it’s of this woman – whatever her name may’ve been – that I first thought when I heard three weeks ago that Peace Corps would be shuttering itsoperations in Turkmenistan. After 19 years of work, of gruel, of that life, the United States government had determined that Peace Corps had offered as much as it could in Ashgabat. Peace Corps in Turkmenistan is done. Fsyo. Wepat.
The reasons, if there are any new ones, do not yet seem to have been made public. Nor do any further reasons seem necessary – consensus seems that this was a long time coming. Visas had already been revoked, and the program – according to at least one of those familiar with volunteers – was less than it once was. Plus, only 18 volunteers remained. While statistics are available for those willing to collate, I’d presume those 18 represented the smallest caste of PCVs in any country still in operation.
But that class size, and the closure’s inevitability, won’t stem the sting. This is a life those volunteers have come to hold, come to accept – come, for some, to enjoy. To hear that the program’s closed – to hear that their friends and their homes and their lives were all to be abandoned – is a shock, no matter how expected. A shock to the system. An emotional whiplash, slung between excitement at return and reticence at departure.
I should know. I was in their position only ten months ago. And though it’s been nearly a year since our departure, the people you leave behind don’t go long without crossing your mind. There’s not a day your service doesn’t come back to you. There isn’t some form of regret, of ownership over the departure – why did I have to get mugged? why couldn’t I have found a reason to remain? – that doesn’t hang, doesn’t buzz in the back of your mind every time a memory flickers past, every time a breeze and a note and a scent tosses you back to the squat lean-to’s piling the steppe. There isn’t a day you miss the isolation. There isn’t a day you miss it all.
I won’t presume to speak for the things they’ll leave behind. I’ll only offer that this closure, coupled with USAID’s departure from Russia, represents the latest moment of American retrenchment from post-Soviet space. And while it may not affect Ashgabat-Washington relations in any averse manner, there still remains – at least, to us doe-eyes – something to be said about the interpersonal relations Peace Corps engendered. There remains something to soft power. Sure, the US will save some funds – support for foreign aid’s fallen precipitously, anyway – but there’ll be no more village-based friendships. There’ll be no more American presence at cultural parades. There’ll be no more English club to augment lessons. There’ll be no one more to push and prod and ply students to travel, to explore, to open themselves to fine and far lands. The only Americans with whom these Turkmen will likely interact will be the portentous businessmen, the flitting travelers, and whatever military contractors decide to bevel into Ashgabat for a few days and bury whatever reputation Americans once maintained.
That best face is gone, now. As Peace Corps goes, so does America’s best opportunity at curtailing the drone-first, invade-later repute it’s gained in these ex-Umayyad, ex-Stalinist lands. America’s soft power drains, one former Soviet nation at a time.
Uzbekistan finished in 2005. Kazakhstan closed in 2011. Kyrgyzstan’s been halved, and Tajikistan never was. And now, in 2012, closes Turkmenistan. And I wonder what ever became of the woman who gave us that presentation – if her face is still wan, if her voice still strains when talking about the land she once served and the man who once ruled. I wonder if she misses it at all. And I wonder if she has any regrets — or if it is only those 18 now departing who will carry a hole, an ache that volunteers prior can’t register, and which those now leaving will be unable to forget for months and years to come.