Posts Tagged ‘Turkmenistan’


The death of a vegetrian. Or, “Displacement and the suspension of principles”

October 27, 2008


           I have always rejected the dogmatic clinging to principle, because all value judgments take root in and are thus only valid in a specific context. I believe that as context changes, the tenets that people hold dear also change.


            Some would deem that fickle. Others would agree and argue for the contingency of the individual, recognising that as circumstances change, so the self changes. Both are charges that threaten us: on one hand, our integrity is compromised by hypocrisy; on the other hand, our adaptability pales in the face of immutable conviction. As with all things, therefore, it is a matter of balancing the two, of negotiating some stance between two-faced irresponsibility and blind, unconditional devotion.


*          *          *


            I have self-defined as a vegetarian for over six years. I say ‘self-defined’, because by some people’s standards, I would not have even merited the designation ‘vegetarian’, because I seldom chose to eat fish. Such a decision was motivated by the philosophy that motivated my ‘vegetarianism’ in the first place: an inclination towards boycotting exploitative methods of production while accepting local, small-scale produce.


            I stopped eating meat at the same that I started to acquire broader socio-political awareness. In my last year of high-school in France, reading books such as Naomi Klein’s No Logo and discovering the ”Another world is possible” slogan of the World Social Forum introduced me to the concept of responsibility in consumerism. On one hand, it was your classical late-nineties anti-globalisation fare, which entailed choosing not to buy products produced by sweatshop labour or associated with multi-national corporation (who abused human rights and undermined local, independent business). On the other hand, it led to me ceasing to eat meat, which in university continued into a penchant towards products (especially dairy) produced according to Fair Trade and organic standards.


            My borderline flirtations with eating fish sprouted from a belief that if you ate it from local sources, you were supporting small-scale industry and not causing too much environmental/social tension. Initially, I only ate it at the sea-shore in France, Italy or my dad’s house in the Caribbean (dare I divulge the privilege of my upbringing). But then, after a couple years, I became lazy and my occasional contingently-justifiable delights (once every few months) became more frequent indulgences, perhaps sushi in a self-proclaimed ‘sustainable’ sushi bar, or the odd package of Sainsbury’s Organic smoked salmon (the debate regarding purchasing supermaket-produced organic and fair trade products from huge companies that monopolize the market or threaten small business exceeds the scope of this piece, but is nevertheless something that requires much more deliberation).


            Consequently, it became that my principles concerning fish consumption were more flexible than before, and I found myself being more and more able to justify eating fish. Recently, more precisely over the last couple of weeks, my convictions regarding eating red meat have fallen victim to a similar tendency.


            The cause of my choice to boycott of meat products originates in a disgust of the industry. Consequently, I have often maintained that I would consider eating meat that came from animals reared in more humane methods, such as traditional shepherding. And during a stop over in the very small village of Jerbent in the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan, on the highway between Ashgabat in the south and Dashogus in the north, I took myself up on that.


            Jerbent is pretty much the closest place I’ve ever been in to the Middle of Nowhere: a tiny village of perhaps a few hundred inhabitants living in single-story, rectangular houses scattered on the sand. Outside these houses, camels can be found either attached by ropes to wooden troughs or wandering aimlessly through strewn rubbish in the company of chickens. Sheep and goats are kept in circular pens made out of large, 2 metre-high tree branches, with their broader end fixed into the sand while the twigs of their narrower extremity reach up into the cloudless blue sky. One of the roads encompassing of the village had been completely encroached upon by the constantly shifting dunes of the desert, and served as the slightest indication of the power of the natural forces at play in that harsh environment.


            Our two cars pulled up to a house whose owner was accustomed to providing sustenance to passing drivers and their passengers, given that after Turkmenbashi ordered the demolition of the other main village on the desert highway, apparently because it did not conform to an example of the progressive society he was attempting to forge,  Jerbent is the only real source of human activity for a 500 km radius. We were led into a narrow room with no furnishings apart from a refrigerator and a collection of jars filled with stewed fruit and pickles in one corner. The ten of us (2 drivers and 8 passengers) sat around a plastic tablecloth spread out on the floor, something we had grown accustomed to during our time in Iran and which I had come to admire for its convenient dispensing of practicalities such as not having enough chairs to accommodate unexpected guests. Our hostess served us green tea, and then asked if we wanted something to eat. The only thing on offer was lamb, and, to the surprise of both my vegetarian and omnivore companions,  I put in a request.


            Now, I had had a small breakfast of coffee and biscuits a few hours before. I was by no means famished, and we had enough apples, apricots and various other tidbits to last through the 6 hours until we were to arrive at our destination. Therefore, my decision to eat the lamb was not motivated by a fear of hunger, nor was it out of politeness to the hosts. I, quite simply, was not bothered by the thought of eating a sheep raised in the Turkmen desert. In fact, and perhaps slightly morbidly, the idea rather appealed to me.


             The meat came in sizable chunks soaking in its gravy on two communal plates with some chopped raw onion sprinkled on top, to be eaten by hand with the help of bread. The flesh was salty, fatty and tender, and it gushed its full-bodied juices onto my taste buds. I chewed and chewed, entertained by the challenge of masticating that unmistakable consistency, while savouring the distinctive, succulent flavour.


            Yes, I really enjoyed that simple dish of dead desert sheep, despite feeling it sit heavily in my intestines following the meal. And, perhaps in total hypocrisy, I am not ashamed of that enjoyment. Even more shocking, I decided to reindulge the growing carnivore inside me about a week later, when I ordered a lamb shashlyk (grilled on a skewer) in Bukhara, Uzbekistan…


            So, what now? Do I consider myself a ‘meat-eater’. Should I? Is my claim to vegetarianism nullified by these recent spurts of lamb meat-love?


            In response to these questions, Di made the useful point that no labels are ever either seamless and therefore often dispensable. ‘Don’t call yourself a vegetarian, just say that you don’t eat meat’, she suggested. Yet although that may be a practical way of framing the situation when I’m ordering food in a restaurant, how does it sit when placed within the philosophical debate about the ethics of human consumption of animals? Does the fact that I have veered from the principled path of vegetarianism forsake the ground from which I am able to criticise the exploitative, unsustainable methods used in most western meat production?


            And what about other pro-vegetarian arguments, such as the fact that in view of the world food crisis, the amount of grain that it takes to nourish an animal could sustain many, many more people than the those that would get my on the amount of meat derived fro that animal. Accordingly, it would follow that the most humanitarian decision would be for us to renounce meat so that the grain that would normally go to the meat industry could be directly redistributed to those populations who experience food shortages. But where does shepherding fit into that logic? Surely, animals that survive on the dry, prickly vegetation of the Central Asian semi-desert are usurping neither actual food resources nor arable land? 


            Despite the rationalisation that I am increasingly capable of, I am left with a resounding suspicion that my relativism, through which I evaluate my actions based on the specificities of the context, still stinks of hypocrisy.


*          *          *


            In order to come to some sort of pertinent evaluation of the situation, I have come to the conclusion that my recent decisions to eat meat should to be situated alongside other choices I have made during these travels. For example, over the past month my qualms about purchasing certain products, namely from Coca Cola and Nestle, have been similarly neglected. Again, the decision to boycott these companies dates back to my student days, when Coke was accused of murdering some of its employees who were members of a turbulent trade union in South America; while Nestle occupies a prestigious spot on the ‘Black List’, a group of companies who have either administrative or economic ties to the Zionist movement. In the U.K., France, America, I am often adamant about the importance of such boycotts, framing them in terms of a broader ‘ethical consumerism’, which seeks to reject placing one’s purchasing power in companies that use sweatshop labour (Nike), or have investments in arms companies, or tend to monopolise certain markets (Chiquita banana).


            Since travelling, however, I have become so slack when it comes to following through with such principles: if i feel a bout of dodgy stomach emerging while on public transport, I’ll buy the first Coke I see because it really helps settle the stomach. Similarly, having to wake up at 7am to catch a bus after a night on the vodka is greatly assisted by a hot cup of instant coffee, which not always but often comes in the form of Nescafe. So, several years of practicing what I preached have flown out the train window,.


            I wonder:


            To what extent is being removed from one’s context or ‘normalcy’ taken as a license to permit oneself abnormal behaviours?


            Does travelling, with the vast changes that it implies in terms of language, culture, values, become a good excuse for deviance?


            Do the combined sensations of movement, temporariness, transit and difference combine to make us more prone to suspend our tenets in the name of ‘adjustment’ and ‘compromise’?


            Or, does travelling across the world with a backpack consume so much energy that we become, quite simply, lazy?



Turkmenistan: through the looking glass

October 23, 2008

Borders rarely delineate cultures. Since attending university, I have come to conceive of nations as, for the most part, artificially constructed entities, especially postcolonial states. It only takes one glance at a map of Africa to deduce that the continent was divvied up among the imperial powers using the contents of an adolescent’s pencil case.

Consequently, populations have always found themselves split according to these inorganic divisions, and history has been stained with the blood of millions caught on the wrong sides of geopolitical rifts. The shallowness of national boundaries often translates into the presence of the same ethnic groups on either sides of national borders, creating transitional areas between countries that reduces the starkness of crossing borders: it is rare that one feels complete cultural difference from one side of a border to another. With those ideas in mind and past experience to support them, I found the abrupt changes that constituted crossing the border from Iran into Turkmenistan gobsmacking.

We crossed over the border at Bajgiran, some 200 km from Mashhad. Unfortunately, we arrived at the border at 3:45, 15 minutes after closing time, and had to spend the night in the remote border town, which, with its middle-of-nowhere calm and crisp mountain air, was pleasant. We awoke at 6am the next morning, ready to catch the border opening at 7:30. Instead of braving the 20 minute march uphill to the border post with our backpacks, Di and I thumbed down a passing lorry and hitched a ride up, while our stubborn companions faced the incline ahead. Our saviour was a chatty trucker from north-western Iran, who was happy to spare us the sweat of the climb and also offered us some sustenance for the crossing: apples and toffee.

The crossing itself was quick and painless. The most amusing aspect of the experience was the face-off between the Iranian and Turkmen customs offices: facing outwards from the inner wall of the former, the obligatory photographs of Khomeini and Khameini projected their stale stares across into no man’s land, while a poised, iconic portrait of Turkmenbashi returned their imposing gaze. The juxtaposition of the faces gave a preliminary insight into the potency of the Turkmenbashi personality cult. It also highlighted the irony of absolutism, in that it accentuated the geographical limitations of the totalitarian. It was a parody of national hegemony, in which the leaders of each regime were reduced to the egotistical, melodramatic competitors of an American wrestling match. I could almost here the stereotyped television voice laden with forced suspense spouting: ”In this corner, the deceased yet timeless self-proclaimed leader of the Turkmen people! In the other corner, the quasi-twin-named tag-team of the twentieth century’s most influential Shi’a clerics!”

My amusement was suspended by the realisation that a single step through a set of white gates could lead to hair freedom. After walking past the line that demarcated the border into Turkmen territory, I subtly slipped off the scarf hat had covered my head for the previous three weeks, and felt slightly risqué doing so. At the same time, I reflected on the spatial arbitrariness of morals; how in five metres, one could cross from indecency to acceptability with no other reason than property.

After passing through Turkmen immigration and customs, which included a not-so-thorough medical check, we had o wait for over an hour for a mini-bus to arrive, which would take us the remaining 20-odd kilometres into Ashgabat. The soldiers were very strict, they would not allow us to even venture over to the area where the trucks were coming out of customs in order to ask for a ride. Heeding to the subservience required by the circumstances, we obediently waited.

Finally the minibus arrived, and we began our descent into Ashgabat. No amount of nominal change of territory could have prepared us for what we saw: a woman crossing the road in Ashghabat: in a short sleeved, knee-length dress. We all turned around at each other in mutual shock! Really, apart from the odd white marble buildig, the first thing that struck us most was the way in which the women were dressed. The stood grouped on roadsides in bright, solid coloured dresses, in blues and reds and purples, accompanied with green, yellow and brown patterned head-wraps. The contrast of these scenes compared to those that we had left in the holy city of Mashhad the day before was shockingly stark. From women hunched under opaque tents (‘chador’ literally means ‘tent’) to women standing tall, straight-backed and proud in technicolour glory.

The amazement did not cease there, but grew exponentially as we discovered more and more of the capital. The starkness of the difference in people’s appearances was compounded by the intensely grandiose characteristics of the architecture and sanitized, fairy tale-like town planning. Vastly wide, perfectly straight roads bypassed tall, white, almost colonial style buildings, each as perfect and poised as the next, none too close to the other. Every now and then, the eye would be accosted by a glimmer, and your attention would be drawn to one of the many gold-plated statues that grace the entrances of public buildings and banks, or constitute statues in their own right.

The many monuments immortalizing Turkmenbashi, who died from a heart-attack in 2006, are ostentatious and have a futuristic, sci-fi quality to them. The most bizarre is probably the Arch of Neutrality, which resembles a a huge rocket ready for lift-off, adorned with a golden statue of leader that rotates to be constantly facing the sun. At night, it is lit up with an ever-changing array of garish colours: fluorescent green, pink and blue fade into one another, and reinforce the impression that the rocket is bound to take flight at any given second.

In our first venturing around the city, we happened to fall upon a military parade, which we later realised was the rehearsal for the seventeenth anniversary of Turkmen independence from the USSR. Watching it from atop the Arch of Neutrality, we felt as if we were experiencing a true example of totalitarian regime, a small-scale reenactment of the images of Maoist China or Nazi Germany, until Caro pertinently reminded us that military parades are infact still quite common in the twenty-first century and not only in North Korea, but for Bastille Day in France and national independence days for many other non-dictatorships. Our romanticisation aside, our amusement shifted to the hectic disorganization of the soldiers instead of taking every single incident to be part of the ideologue’s landscape, which, in the context, was admittedly difficult.

The sudden and immediate bizarennes of my first few hours in Turkmenistan, and especially the contract of the cultural landscape with that of Iran, made me feel like I had fallen down that deep, dark rabbit hole, and had emerged in some odd parallel universe. Unfortunately, due to our transit visa that meant our time in the country was severely restricted to 4 days and other rules like an 11 ‘clock curfew for foreigners, I didn’t have the chance to see any other sides to Turkmenistan that challenged the initial impression of a country drowned by personality cult.

The most marking incident outside of Ashgabat was when we were stopped on the highway in the middle of the Karakum desert, because the new president was visiting the inauguration of a new town 100 km away. Firstly, we flet that stranding a handful of truck-drivers and families in the middle of the desert was a slightly excessive security measure. Then later we drove past the new village, which was surrounded by a perimeter of Turkmen flags, and the sparkling new buildings were wrapped up in big blue and white bows… Again, I wondered when I had slipped through the rabbit hole.


Uzbekistan visa in Tehran

September 21, 2008

The process of collecting an Uzbek visa in Tehran should have been easy, considering that we had applied for a letter of invitation and received a collection notification. We used the company STANtours, which i would highly recommend: fast (7-14 days, we got ours in 7), friendly and do not demand hotel bookings alongside.

However, trying to find the embassy was very difficult, and rendered the whole process much more stressful. Unlike several other embassies that are situated in the centre of town, the Uzbek, and incidentally, Turkmen, embassies are to the far north of Tehran, an area not reached by the metro. Luckily, we had found a hand-drawn map in the guest book of our hostel (Mashhad hostel on Amir Kabir street, also recommended), which was very helpful once we found our bearings. From the metro station Mirdamad (last stop at northern end of Line 1, the red line), take a bus towards Noubaniad. From there, you can follow the jpg image of the map that we used: SEE BELOW (sorry to the cartographers for disseminating this information without your permission, but considering that you left it in order to help others in the first place, i don’t think you’ be very bothered. Thank you, it was infinitely useful, and hopefully will be to many others).

Lesson 5: Uzbek visas are issued at the Consulate, not the Embassy.

A one-month visa costs $75 and is processed the same day, in less than an hour. You need two passport photos. Unlike other visas, where they give you a certain period of validity (1-3 months) during which you can enter and stay however long is permitted by the visa, the Uzbek visa issued in Tehran are quite strict about entry and exit dates, so its better to know approximately the date of entry. If you’re planning on traveling overland through Turkmenistan (in which case you’ll probably be wanting a Turkmen transit visa), your best bet is to make the beginning of the Uzbek visa overlap with the end of your Iranian visa, in case you are refused a Turkmen transit visa. That way, if you cannot travel through Turkmenistan, at least you have the option of flying directly to Tashkent.