Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Night is Less than a Day

Ashgabat was the only place where we didn’t need to be accompanied by our tour guide every time we left the hotel. In the capital of Turkmenistan, we were allowed to amble along the parade ground avenues and faux Timurid domed government buildings. We hadn’t been able to do this before, although we had tried. A few days earlier, when the freighter carrying us across the Caspian had docked at Turkmanbashi, we hadn’t expected to be able to enter the country until our tour guide arrived to vouch for our future activities and whereabouts while in Turkmenistan. When everyone else got in the customs line, we sulked on a curb outside, smoking cigarettes and watching our freighter unload the remainder of its cargo from Azerbaijan. We took out our passports and again looked at our Turkmenistan visas, still incredible in their blue-yellow sheen. We reminisced about the afternoon we had returned to the consulate in Yerevan thinking we’d get mummified in red tape and then booted out the door. We were left sitting in the reception area, looking at a copy of the Ruhnama, trying to decide if it would be OK if we picked it up. I had been just about to open up the touted Turkmen Book of the Soul, when the consular services attendant returned with our passports; he held them open to the page where he’d just affixed our visas. It turned out that we weren’t allowed to wait before entering customs and when we were found lounging around, smoking cigarettes in the back we were told sharply in Russian to get inside and go through customs. The whole time we had waited nervously to see if we’d actually be allowed to leave customs unattended. The stamp on our visas was as surprising as the visas themselves had been. Elliot and I walked out the door into the glare of new sidewalks and the oily Caspian and ran toward the town of Turkmenbashi, about 2 KM down the road, convinced that someone would soon discover their mistake and come after us. After having a gun pulled on us by walking into a bank and getting a slap on the wrist from the tourist agency we were in Ashgabat and finally able to look around one of the most cloistered and xenophobic countries in the world. Everywhere I went it was soldiers and monuments. There were no stores, just wide streets with a few government Ladas cruising around. The only civilians to be seen were completely wrapped in scarfs that covered their heads and faces while they cleaned the aforementioned monuments. It was hard to tell if the cleaners wore these scarfs to protect their faces from the sun and the sand blowing in from the Karakum or if they wore them to protect their anonymity in an autocratic country. They must have realized that there was some safety in looking like everyone else on the streets. Everyone was a worker and every worker had the scarfs on, man or woman. It seemed all one needed to do here to pass as a local was to put on fatigues or an day glo orange safety vest and wrap a scarf around your head. I never heard anyone talking so you could expect that no one would question you. I walked around downtown all day. I saw all the golden monuments and an odd unbroken line of brand new hotels, there must have been at least fifteen in a row, where it looked like no one was staying. I couldn’t help but to pity the volunteers and aid workers living out in Turkmenistan. In the former Soviet Union the capital was supposed to be a place where you could find an over-priced jar of peanut butter and speak English with someone while having a ridiculously overpriced beer in a mock-up Irish pub. Ashgabat seemed to be the only capital that was devoid of these things. What would it be like to live in a Turkmen village and come here once a month? It wasn’t a village, but it wasn’t exactly a city either; it was an amalgamation, part Baghdad, part Xanadu, part Gulag Archipelago. It was also boring. I had been wanting to see this place for years, but there wasn’t anyone to talk to and all the buildings were ministries behind armed guards. If I had tried to wander into one of these even the ignorant tourist card would probably not get me off the hook. Nowhere in the world have I felt the same kind of fear that I felt in Ashgabat. I wouldn’t say I was afraid but I was conscious of a fear. It may have not even been my own, but everyone else’s creating a palpable tension. Everywhere else, you fear a dark alley, a riot, a roving gang of armed teenagers, dogs and maybe even explosions. You fear the overt. In Turkmenistan, you didn’t fear so much as you felt the invert. It’s like there was something underground or between the walls that had no rationale that just struck occasionally because that’s all it knew and, of course, what it did when it struck was a complete mystery. Initially, you enjoy being a protagonist in a Kafka novel, but after a while you get hungry and the conspicuous lack of pirozhki stands is probably the most disconcerting thing. It’s almost like Ashgabat is entirely beyond the purview of either communism or democracy. In a way, it looks like an example of what the world would’ve looked like if fascism had won. The only other place in the world I have seen that looks like it is the EUR, a neighborhood that Mussolini designed as a world fascism exposition piece that still exists south of Rome. I don’t remember there being any place to eat there either. All the right angles and the chalk-white marble seem to inform you that you no longer get to decide when or what you’re going to eat. After finding the only place I saw anyone, in a market on the edge of the downtown area, I ate a little then went back to the hotel. I was exhausted. I found Elliot by the pool with a book and a beer. He looked unfazed by Ashgabat’s epiphytic quality. He had seen most of the monuments I had seen, but hadn’t bothered to walk to the outskirts of town, where the place abruptly ended in the desert, giving one the impression that Turkmen nomadic tendencies were still alive and well. Even the capital, at its fringes, gave the impression of a tent city. We went back to our room, showered and laughed some more at the incredible obvious place where the microphone wires had been run through the wall, but unlike the night we had gotten in, we no longer made a joke of sounding like spies. All those blank guarded buildings were too close to the fore of our minds. There was one place open to buy beer. I had never paid so much for beers in the former Soviet Union. I hadn’t been ripped off too badly because the price of the beers had been marked. Everywhere else, beer had practically been free, Efes in Azerbaijan, Kazbegi in Georgia and Kilikia in Armenia, all well under a dollar a bottle. It was the same in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan too. Either everyone drank araq (homemade) in Turkmenistan or no one drank, which in this part of the world would be quite a feat. After we drank our beers in the room we decided to go down to the hotel’s disco. There were two bars there, one upstairs and one downstairs. We went to the downstairs one first, but there was hardly anyone there. In the upstairs one we found a few more people, even a guy wearing a yes hay em (I’m Armenian) shirt. Thinking maybe we’d talk to this guy, we decided to stick around. We still had too many notes to compare about our experiences in Ashgabat that day to invite ourselves over to the Armenian guy’s table. The more beers we had, the more ponderous our conversation became. By the time we paid the check, we had agreed that the place had something cold and inalienable about it, but, to be fair, I had gotten the same feeling reading from reading Crime and Punishment and drinking too much back in the states. Elliot laughed at this. True, he said. We paid our exorbitant bill and went downstairs to the disco. Earlier there hadn’t been anyone down here, now it was almost at capacity. I’d already had too much, so I promptly went over to the bar to order another round of beers. Elliot stood on the edge of the dance floor like an uncertain kid standing on the edge of the ice skating rink. When I got the beers and turned back around he was gone. I looked around and found him sitting with some American-looking guys, military by the shape of their hair. There were two girls at the table too, one of them darker, like she could’ve been Turkmen and the other clearly Russian. I put the beers on the table and Elliot introduced me. I could feel the tension from the greetings. One guy was friendly, the other indifferent, but those two girls, those two girls wanted us dead. Either Elliot didn’t notice or, more likely, didn’t care. He was too busy talking to the friendly guy, leaving me to try to coax something out of the indifferent one. Since they were military they were practically hard-wired to regard any question with suspicion. I’ve seldom had such an unamiable conversation partner. Over the noise and russki pop I could hardly hear his monosyllabic answers. After a while I gave up, besides the more I talked to him, the more those two girls glowered at me. One of them kept saying things into the friendly guy’s ear. While she talked her eye brows fluttered up and down with irritation. I was about to wander away from the table when the friendly guy order a round for all of us. The place was so expensive that it felt rude to take my beer and go, so I stayed with the sullen crew, sipping my free beer and looking out at the dance floor like there was actually something interesting out there rather than the spandex-clad and bored-looking prostitutes. On their heels, in the flashing lights they looked spiderish somehow. Both the girls were getting up, they had been angry ever since we had sat down. I guess Elliot and I were bad for business. We had showered earlier, but after traveling for a few weeks, we probably still had that transient look, especially for these girls that were used to the biznezmany who came down here. They’d probably never seen anybody so irresponsibly groomed as Elliot and I. The girls stormed away and although I thought their behavior was vapid and amusing for its naivety, I hadn’t angered anyone so much with my appearance since I was in jr. high. After the army guys left, I finished my beer and realized I was at a threshold. I could either go up to bed now or get another beer and, quite possibly, do something stupid. I was about to go upstairs when I saw the angry girls that we had been sitting with out on the dance floor. They had the same bored looks on their faces and danced in the same uninterested way as everyone else on the floor. I felt choler burning the back of my throat, but I’d had too much to drink to be able to tell if I was actually upset or just felt maudlin. Elliot had wandered off somewhere. I stood there for a moment, tired, drunk and thinking about how quiet it must be out in the city. I am dancing, not just swaying around a little, but dancing like I’m at a punk show, dancing like a complete jerk, bringing my knees up, pistoning my elbows back and forth and shaking my hands like they’re holding maracas and I’m not alone. I’ve managed to wedge myself between the two sneering girls. At first they’re so shocked they don’t know how to react, but gradually their faces take on the same sneers they had on before and their eyes roll. Right in the middle of the song they stop dancing and walk to the other side of the floor where they begin dancing again and I follow them, not making it obvious at first, but soon, I’m right between them again, flailing around, acting completely oblivious. I’m trying not to laugh as they cross the floor yet again and I find myself dancing their way. These girls are so icy and I’m such a ragged bum, I can’t believe that I’m the only one that sees the humor in this, but then I think of the humorless city outside. I think of all those empty hotels and that revolving golden statue of Turkmenbashi. I think about the fascist architecture and the lack of any place to eat. I leave the sneering prostitutes alone. I don’t see Elliot anywhere so I go back up to the room. There’s no one there either. I get a glass of water and walk over to the window. I open it and there is nothing, no sound, just a gust of desert wind, it is bathwater warm. I finish my water in a gulp and lie down on the bed. I am lying there listening to the silence outside when I notice the microphone wire in the wall again. “You can hear me, right?” “It’s not funny, you know,” I say against the warm silence coming in the window. “It’s not funny at all.” The last word almost seems to echo. I roll over on my side and feel myself falling asleep. “Yeah.”

1 comment:

  1. spies, dirty beards and hookers.....the makings of a good tale