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Ŧ¥¶ØGЯ@¶Ħ¥ i₪ Đ£₪Ŧi∩¥, part 3: a Turkmen Firdowsi in Berdimuhammedov’s Court?

Written by on Friday, 5 November 2010
Culture and History, Turkmenistan
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Court of Mahmoud of Ghazni.

Editor’s note: Since the Niyazov era, Turkmenistan has seen itself as the rejuvenator of the Turkic language family. neweurasia’s Timur Niroomand doesn’t think this ambition is mad, but he sees important lessons arising from the history of the Turkic languages’ historical rival, Farsi. [Note: pictured on the left is Mahmud of Ghazni's court. Click on it to read more about the history of the Ghaznavnids.]

“Henceforth I shall not die, alive I shall remain, For I was he who spread the seeds of speech again.” — Firdowsi

Annasoltan initiated this post series, “Typography is Destiny”, to explore the many upheavals, both past and present, that surround Turkmenistan’s alphabet. Who would have thought that something so simple could be so controversial and politicized? And yet, script is indeed so fundamental to societies, because if language is the key to identity, then the alphabet is the key to language.

But there’s a bigger story beyond the Turkmen alphabet. History shows that analogous to the adventures of the Turkmen alphabet have been the travails of Persian script. The story begins with the Ghaznavid Dynasty, led by Mahmud Ghaznawi, who conquered of much of the Turkic Samanids that succeeded the Arabo-Farsic Abbasids. Mahmud’s foresight about the power of the written word, and the powerful role of government behind it, serves as a foil for today’s leadership in Turkmenistan.

Mahmud’s era experienced a huge tug-of-war between Farsic- and Turkic-speaking peoples in the region for nothing less than civilizational dominance. A millennium later, Turkmens living on the very same soil are confronted with a new tug-of-war, this time three-way, between Farsic, Turkic, and Slavic-speaking forces. We can see this conflict everywhere, including on the internet, where in the aftermath of ICANN’s controversial decision last year to de-Latinize URL addresses, Russia has been moving in force to Cyrillicize domain names in the CIS.

The ability to conduct scientific inquiry in one’s own language is key to a society’s prospects for cultural consolidation at home and influence abroad. So, if it seems that Turkmen have a deep reticence about global affairs, among the key causes of this is precisely the ambivalence over the Turkmen script. The population is very much torn between Slavic and Turkic influences. This problem even extends to within the government itself. The enigma that is the “Turkmen alphabet” has, for the moment at least, hindered the the revival of the Turkmen dill or tongue, certainly within Turkmenistan itself and the broader CIS, and beyond in Turkey and the Middle East.

What’s really interesting from the Ghaznavid era — and what we can learn the most for today — was the decision by Mahmud to bring Persian literature into his court. Soheil Muhsin Afnan, author of Avicenna, his life and works, observes:

“Yet Sultan Mahmud, either out of vanity or genuine appreciation of the arts, rendered a great service to Persian Literature by gathering around him at his court most of the famous poets and scholars of the time, and generously spending some four hundred thousand dinars every year upon them, [earning the title of] the ‘kidnapper of literary men.’”

A key (and tragic) figure in this process was the poet Firdowsi, author of the Shahnemah, today the national epic of Farsic-speaking peoples around the world. He is symbolic of both the peaks and pitfalls of a government-centerred policy of national rejuvenation through language, for Firdowsi suffered neglect at the hands of Mahmud, but his great work posthumously receive official blessing and dissemination. Afnan writes,

“By reviving the lays of ancient Iran, based on prose works in the old Pahlawi tongue, [Firdowsi] succeeded as none other had done in reanimating the national spirit… And by making a deliberate attempt to use as few Arabic words as possible, he gave new life and vigour to a language that had been declining with alarming rapidity.”

There are two points here. First, that the Ghaznavid strategy can be tricky business. If Mahmud perhaps felt Firdowsi was too risky an investment while he was alive, Saparmurat Niyazov took no chances and wrote his own Shahnemah himself, i.e., the Ruhnama. But it remains to be seen how successful this policy will be in the long run, especially considering all the fierce skepticism and criticism surrounding the book among Turkmenistan’s own neighbors. Decentralization, so to speak, is probably a more effective strategy, at least to generate legitimacy for Turkmen literary and scientific projects. This is something I hope Gurbanguly Berdimuhammadov will implement.

However, decentralization can only be possible if Turkmen literati and scientists are allowed to act independently. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Turkmenistan at the moment. Economic conditions are also breeding an out-and-out brain drain to neighboring countries, and beyond, to Russia and to the West. Let’s face it: this might be good for short-term political control, but bad for long-term cultural vitality. Nevertheless, the situation could be quickly turned around, at least in terms of giving greater freedom to Turkmenistan’s intelligentsia. If that’s established, when given the choice between emigrating or staying, most of our best and brightest will choose to stay. Which leads me to the next point.

Second, what’s most amazing is the way the two languages, Arabic and Persian, first integrated then separated, Persian taking a step back and regrouping. This process, which took place in the mediums of scholarship and literature, nevertheless had a huge impact on the vernacular and concepts of a nation that now measures up to 30 million people. It also laid the groundwork for Avicenna‘s great systematization project (click on the image accompanying this post to learn more).

There’s a lesson here for Turkmen who are now struggling to disentangle their language from its meshing with Russian: stay patient and stay true to your innovative thoughts and novel contributions, like our Persian brothers before us. To quote Annasoltan, “It is important to remember that alphabets are only lines on a page: what matters are the ideas and dreams behind them.” In other words, we must keep our purity of intent, because even if material and political conditions do change, if our hearts are not well-aligned, it will still come to nothing.

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