Friday, March 23, 2018

Post 69--Ugly Beauty--Whims of the Dictator

Our world and our individual lives are full of contradictions as this post will remind you if you did not already know.  It is a story of ugly beauty, of oppressive beauty, but also kind of fascinating. I could not put it away because of these contradictions.  But it also made me disgusted with the way a stupid dictator can waste the wealth of a people on his own selfish whim. I use a strong word--"stupid," for that is what it is. He runs a good chance of being pulled down from his perch in total ignominy and shame. Even if he dies on his throne, his reputation in history will be worse than mud, let alone his eternal destiny.  Jesus strongly condemns oppressors.

Apart from his own fate, the totally unnecessary suffering such a dictator inflicts on his people  amounts to a crime to humanity. 

I am referring to Fjola Helgadottir's story of her journey through Turkmenistan that I pass on to you below.  It is a fascinating country and journey, with unusually beautiful and expensive buildings that cannot help but impress you.  However, when you think about the oppressive part of the story, the selfish use of power, then it all becomes downright ugly.  

Now when you pick up a world atlas to find out about the state of the country's people, it looks pretty good. My atlas tells me that the country has a literacy rate of 99%, the same as Canada, my adopted country; the USA, my neighbouring country; and the Netherlands, my birth country. The same atlas claims a calory consumption of 2754 kilocalories, an average intake, judging from the 24 countries listed on the two adjacent pages in the atlas. That's surprisingly high and would seem to indicate that, in spite of the totally arbitrary personalized dictatorship under which the people live, they are doing fairly well. The thing is, of course, can you trust such stats?  I, for one, doubt them. You can't trust anything that comes out of a dictator's sleeve.

But the situation described in Helgadottir's story below reminds me of the Olympic saga.  That's a strictly elite sports event for which people spend years of energy and, yes, tons of other people's money, for their own glory. Whether they win or lose makes no difference to the course of world history, even though the media reports keep proclaiming that history is being made. Except for the participants and their organizers, no one's life is improved by it. In fact, poor people are often chased out of their neighbourhoods and the latter demolished to be replaced by glitter and gold. Vancouver and its province British Columbia, the scene of the 2010 Winter Olympics where I live, was and is becoming a city and even province impossible to live in because of the obscenely high prices of property and houses, and all this while there is said to be no or hardly any money for or solution to the housing shortage. I could wander around in the city during the event and taste the Olympic ambiance, but I could not afford a ticket to the events. Was it an event of beauty?  Really?  I leave it to you along with the dictators of this world.  

I place this post on this Christian-Muslim blog, because Turkmenistan is a Muslim-majority country. Muslim theologians claim that Islam pushes justice and compassion. Their dictator is probably a Muslim, but he seems to know little about Islam and seems hardly motivated by it. When Muslims makes these grandiose claims for their religion, they need to explain how such situations arise. Does Islam have no defense against this or protection of the poor?  I realize, of course, that "Christians" have similar situations to account for. 

Here's Helgadottir. Enjoy--if you can.....


Fjola Helgadottir:
Vancouver Sun, February 24, 2018
          "At the whim of a dictator in fascinating Turkmenistan."
The Province of February 28, 2018
          "Turkmenistan has an eccentric and narcissistic president and it shows."

Most people have never heard of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and cannot point it out on a map. People often say it is like a mix of Las Vegas and Pyongyang. The city looks like a cartoon fairyland, with huge structures of marble and gold everywhere you look, and each skyscraper is more luxurious than the last.
We visited Turkmenistan as part of our honeymoon trip from Sydney (Australia) to Oxford (England). We had not heard of many of the countries before our departure, and spent time trying to remember the names of all the different “stans”. We entered Turkmenistan’s border town, Konye-Urgench, after travelling across Uzbekistan. To get around in Central Asia is tricky. One of the main methods of transport is going to a hub, finding a car that is going your direction, and waiting 1-5 hours until it fills with people. Add a few chickens, a couple babies and at least 2 people on laps and then it leaves for your destination.
After travelling in this area of the world for about a month we got good at making local friends without any language in common. Most people speak their native language with Russian as their second language. While driving across Uzbekistan the young man next to us showed us an seemingly endless album of pictures of himself posing in different military outfits with guns. The car overheated several times and we had to stop and wait for it to cool down. At one point a cushy air-conditioned tourist bus drove by, and we questioned our decision to travel independently.

We met our guide Oleg in Konye-Urgench. He was Russian, a no nonsense guy, and we had full confidence that he would be able to handle whatever Turkmenistan would throw at us. First, he drove us to a market so we could buy the local currency, the Manat. Exchanging money in banks in Turkmenistan is too costly so everyone goes to markets for money exchange. Then we drove south through sandy dunes for hours, with camels dotting the landscape. Finally, we reached the gas crater in the middle of the Karakum desert.
Standing next to the crater was one of the most bizarre sights in our lives, with nothing around in the middle of the grey desert and the bright flames lighting up a massive orange hole in the ground. I woke up with a strong headache after a night camping next to the crater for the night. I claimed it was the gas. My husband suspected it had more to do with the shots of vodka we had the night before. Regardless, we had a great night with Irish Rudi, Italian Alessandro, and our guide telling us scary stories of people disappearing into the flames. On our drive to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city, Oleg said, here used to be a village. The Turkmenbashi didn’t like the looks of it, so he decided to tear it down. After making it to Asghabat in one piece we wandered around the city.

I’m sure many dictators in the world would love to build a city like Ashgabat, but Turkmenistan is unique in that it has (a) a spectacularly eccentric and narcissistic president, and (b) enormous oil revenues that allow him (and his predecessor) to indulge in all these ridiculous vanity projects. For example, many of the buildings in the city house useless ministries for this and that. There is the Ministry of Horses (horse features are cut into its marble), the Ministry of Carpets (with carpet pattern decoration on the front), the Ministry of Communication (looks like a big phone), the Ministry of Knowledge (shaped like a book).
The city is full of gold statues of the former president (Turkmenbashi which means leader of Turkmen). These are being slowly removed by the new president in exchange for things more relevant to himself. Turkmenbashi was pretty crazy. He changed the names of some months and days to names of his family members. If that wasn’t enough, he even changed the Turkmen word for bread to the name of his mother! Another quick one – he was trying to quit smoking, so he banned smoking in any place where he might accidentally see another person smoking – even outside in the entire country! You can’t even smoke in the middle of the desert! Basically, Turkmenbashi banned things on a whim, and when he died in 2006 the new president (his former dentist!) reversed some of the more outlandish laws, the new president doesn’t seem to be much better. He is continuing the endless building spree, while spending little money on things like education.

On every street corner there are a few young men in uniforms whose only job is to make sure nobody walks in front of public buildings or palaces, because this looks shabby (there are underpasses provided). Also, tourists have been arrested for taking pictures of the president’s palace. All traffic stops in the morning when the president wants to use the roads to get to work, and people are supposed to hide behind parked cars if the presidential convoy passes by.
We accidentally visited Asghabat’s latest hotel, when we were looking for a toilet. The hotel had only been open for a few weeks, so they had plenty of staff ready and eager to serve. In fact, they had just returned from France, where they learned the art of hospitality. They call the hotel Seven Stars. It featured showers that emulated rain, and the most luxurious toilets we’ve ever seen. The only problem was the complete lack of guests. Turkmenistan is sometimes called the world’s second most isolated country (after North Korea), so we wondered how they plan to fill up all 299 rooms (actually less because the president has reserved a whole floor for himself).
We had been warned to not speak about our tour guide in our hotel room as this could get him in trouble. It is common knowledge that hotel rooms are bugged. This was a slightly chilling feeling. We flew out of Ashgabat to Azerbaijan, in a completely empty Lufthansa plane, with mixed emotions. One the one hand we felt a sense of relief that we were no longer under observation, but absolutely fascinated by what we had just experienced.

What you need to know:
-Turkmenistan is located north of Iran and south of Uzbekistan.
– Getting there is the biggest challenge; start applying for a tourist visa now! We used this service:
– The second challenge is staying away from the secret police.
-Independent travelling is not allowed. So for excursions outside of Ashgabat, you need a guide. However, travel agencies are able to set you up with other travellers to share the cost.

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