In my last post, I talked about the political potential of Turkmen Hip Hop. What I meant by that wasn’t that the music is going to mobilize the young generation to rise up against their government — maybe it could, if the çyraçy ideal (fast cars, fast money, fast women) flounders against the hard realities of our country’s daily life – but that the authorities should listen to it, to understand the desires of the youth. Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to happen, but not just because our leaders seem too afraid to listen to anyone else. Hip Hop will probably continue to be rejected also because of the huge negative reaction from the general public to Hip Hop, and the fact that the çyraçy ideal challenges the very nature of our state at the moment. In fact, the two things — the negativity of the general public and the threat to our sense of nationalism — are connected.
The outside world makes fun of how our media is so censored, but they don’t completely understand. It’s no longer a top-down Stalinist system in which officials meet everyday to plan the propaganda machine; increasingly, people outside of the government can submit their own content to the media for broadcast. However, their content must meet very strict regulations set by the officials: you cannot criticize the government or be political in any way in your lyrics, and if you film a video clip to go with your song, you must wear decent, formal clothing, and girls especially cannot wear anything explicit. Restrictions like these are why you will not find Hip Hop on the official media outlets; the çyraçy ideal is not compatible with the “traditions” and “good morals” the authorities want to promote. The thing is, the older generations — the parents and grandparents of the rappers’ audiences — agree with the authorities.
Editor’s note: NewEurasia’s Khan returns to talk more about Turkmenistan’s Hip Hop scene, and with a novel interpretation: with all the intense boredom of the Turkmen youth, could Hip Hop provide not only an emotional release, but a way for the government to get a sense of what the rising generation wants? [Read our entire series, “Turkmen on the turntables”, by clicking here.
When I last posted on NewEurasia, I introduced readers to the brief history of Turkmenistan’s Hip Hop scene. I now want to talk more about the political potential of the music, which is really there.
But first, I gotta say that I don’t mean revolution. I can’t think of any Hip Hop singer in history who’s ever had either the balls or the actual power to overthrow a government. Yeah, there’s a lot of talk of political violence in Western Hip Hop lyrics, especially the “underground” stuff in America and France, but it’s just bluster, guys beating their chests and acting tough. Actually, in Yemen Hip Hop’s a force against political violence.
Besides, most of us Turkmens — including the rappers — don’t want to destroy our government. The older generation went through that already in 1991, and all we young guys have to do is look over at Kyrgyzstan or Syria to see how messy it can get. That doesn’t mean we aren’t angry or things couldn’t blow up one day, because they could. Here’s why:
Editor’s Note: To those haters who sayin’ Turkmenistan’s got nuttin’ goin’ on, NewEurasia’s Khan gotz a report for you: a history o’ the country’s Hip Hop scene. Damn straight.
Back in 2009, NewEurasia’s Annasoltan started up a series entitled, “Turkmen on the turntables”, about the incipient Turkmen Hip Hop scene. This scene is probably the most under-reported music scene in the Turkic world. I don’t want to let awareness of it in the rest of the world drop, so I’m going to take the mic from Annasoltan with a respectful nod to her good work.
Yet another one of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters has been banned in parts of Central Asia, based on what one might consider being merits of cultural and political disrespect. First, it was the comical and offensive Kazakh journalist Borat, and now it’s the comical and repressive dictator Admiral General Aladeen of the fictional African country the Republic of Wadiya.
“The heroic story of a dictator who risks his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.”
“The Dictator,” featuring a “Middle Eastern-style camel-riding tyrant,” is a satirical take on the culture of African governments. But, the film is supposed to be based on former Libyan leader, oppressor and indeed “Dictator”, the late Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. “The Dictator” himself, Admiral General Aladeen, appears clad in a military uniform and is overloaded with award badges. Overbearing sunglasses in place, white gloves assembled and posture perfected – Cohen’s character looks exactly the part and the images and practices of the “Dictatorial” culture of Republic of Wadiya follow suit, too.
Although we all know that Central Asian societies were for generations succoured on Soviet media that was pedagogical and ideological, we often forget what this fully means. Soviet media was often in outright denial, e.g., nary breathing a word about the Chernobyl disaster. It’s my understanding that if you heard a bit too much classical music on the radio meant, there was a crisis: apparently Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” signalled the death of a leader, and was even played on 19 August, 1991, rather prophetically.
Content may change, as well as values, but form persists. In Turkmenistan today, gone is the dream of the “Soviet New Man” (новый советский человек), replaced now with the “Golden Age” (altyn asyr). Here’s a particularly disturbing info-anthropological tidbit: according to Annasoltan and other Turkmen I’ve talked with, TurkmenTV was showing singers performing songs while panic and chaos rained down in Abadan. It seems media forms and informational habits morph, mutate, adapt, in ways those of us who believe in the freedom of the press and information wish they wouldn’t…
Editor’s note: The Turkmen-language Facebook page “JaPBaKLaR”, originally intended as a forum to share popular Turkmen cartoons, has emerged as the biggest Turkmen Facebook community. More importantly, it’s exhibiting some behaviors that seem surprisingly civic. NewEurasia’s Annasoltan reports.
So, first the naysayers: yes, Turkmenistan has got the slowest Internet in Central Asia. The speed for landline Internet a mere 72 KBps, and to get anything faster can cost as much as 7,000 USD (= for “unlimited” access). It also looks like that within my nation, the number of my fellow Turkmenetizens ranges between 80,400 to 127,000, which is roughly 1.5 to 2% of the population.
But for that tiny percentage, the Internet, especially social media, has been a world-transforming experience. Take for example the Facebook page “JaPBaKLaR” (https://www.facebook.com/japbaklar), named after the fictional youngsters of the serial novel by the famous Turkmen writer Berdi Kerbabayew. Would you imagine that here, in such an innocuous place (and remember: Facebook is blocked via landline access) we could expect to see an exhibition of a civic sensibility?
Editor’s note: Google and Opera appear to have been blocked in Turkmenistan — or have they? neweurasia’s Annasoltan explores the mix of censorship, incompetence, and terrible infrastructure that constitutes the “shoddy omnipotence” of government digital control, and why this is both a source of distress and hope.
There’s more funny business going on in the Turkmenet. Recently I heard many Turkmenetizens complaining increasingly about this or that Google service not working. Google Analytics went out of service for a little while, and now Gmail seems to be down on Android-enabled smartphones, while remaining accessible via the UC browser. Google’s Android smartphone also appears to have been affected. However, what’s more worrying is that the Opera mini-browser also appears to be blacked out for the past five consecutive days.
Opera is a major player in the CIS. Since 2010, its regular browser been the most widely used means for surfing the Web in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus, while its mini browser for mobile platforms claims 350,000 Armenian users and a monstrous 70% of all Russian mobile Internet users. For those of us interested in the freedom of information, this is reason to celebrate, for neweurasia learned back in June, as a result of Kazakhstan’s WordPress ban, that Opera’s regular browser’s “turbo” function serves as a kind of accidental proxy server. Meanwhile, Opera mini has been used as a cost-effective method to access sites that are either blocked or access to which is expensive because of telecom rates or difficult because of low quality desktop computers, such as Facebook — and for the cherry on top, there is now also a hacked version of Opera mini with a built-in proxy.
So, how can all these blackouts be possibly explained? Since the Turkmen government keeps its restrictions on telephone and Internet communication in the country secret, the picture is often not immediately clear. Further complicating the situation are neverendingly conflicting reports about access itself (remember the huge debate when neweurasia‘s Schwartz told Al Jazeera that Internet cafes in Turkmenistan require passports to enter?) So, instead of trying to diagnose these specific incidents with Google and Opera, I think it’s more worthwhile to fit them into a bigger diagnosis of the general cyber-disease in my country: a combination of censorship, incompetence, and terrible infrastructure.
With the help of a fellow Turkmen citizen-journalist, I’ve obtained and translated this official media coverage of our nation’s recent presidential election.
“Election” officials in Turkmenistan are reporting that 96.28% of the country’s three million eligible voters have cast their ballots. As is well-known by now, the OSCE didn’t even bother trying to observe the poll, but the Daily Telegraph also reports that over the last two days, authorities had restricted entry across its land borders to foreigners and blocked many Western journalists from covering the election. Nevertheless, the ever-reliable RFE/RL reports at least one irregularity, albeit an anecdote, of a person voting for his/her entire family.
This election is only the third time in more than 20 years of independence that Turkmenistan has held a presidential election, and only the second time when there has been more than one candidate running. Berdimuhamedov won the first alternative election held in 2007, less than two months after Niyazov died. It’s hard to say what exactly the regime is hoping to achieve by this empty ritual. neweurasia‘s Annasoltan has come to the unsettling conclusion that it may just be an exercise in megalomania — seriously.
These photos are by a fellow citizen journalist inside Turkmenistan. It might be hard for outsiders to understand how courageous this person is, even if the content is “uncontroversial”.
I would also like to draw the viewer’s attention away from the banners and at the context around them. If you look closely, you can see indications of the material impoverishment of my country.
The photograph above is from Ashgabat. It shows all eight of the official candidates. However, there are no posters or advertisements allowed that would show these men individually. By contrast, there are huge posters of Berdimuhamedov just about everywhere.