Tuesday, July 19, 2011

five weeks in - origins II - Turkmen people

Turkmen people are very diverse in their appearance. And despite my own appearance, it is not where I am from. As I remarked yesterday, while many have made the expected comment that I could possibly pass for Kazakh, a few have remarked that I could be Turkmen, or at least I could until I open my mouth. If I, or any of my doppelgangers, might be Turkmen but are obviously not, then where are Turkmen people from?

As always, the internet has the answer in the form of Wikipedia’s handy entry on Turkmen people. Seriously, give that page a read and I’ll share my own observations. The concept of being Turkmen, like many nationalities is more than simple (or very complex) ethnography. It is also strongly driven by the cultural history of the people of the region. I have been asking my colleagues as much as I can about where in the country there are from, what they speak in that region (Russian or Turkmen or other) and their own take on what it means to be Turkmen.

Early on, I managed to have a good chat with one of our engineers about Turkmenistan and the people and the borders and the culture. Like many nations, the borders are a mix of sensible geographic boundaries and seemingly arbitrary straight lines. Bordering Iran and Afghanistan does not exactly make this the geopolitical place to be. However, my colleague informed me that Turkmenistan had generally good relations with its neighbors, though he expressed concern about the stability of Afghanistan and how that might impact people near the border. He mentioned that it was common for some villages in the southeastern part of the country to be all or nearly all Afghani people who just happen to live on the Turkmen side of the border. He also remarked that there were villages in Iran of mostly Turkmen people. He then said that these respective people had been there many, many generations and that it was not an issue with where they lived, but that it sometimes seemed like the borders were made wrong. There is a similar issue of blurred borders in the northeast where much of the border with Uzbekistan is along or near a major river. One of our other engineers is from that region and prefers speaking Russian or Uzbek over Turkmen. People live where they live.

With these blurred borders, it’s not much of a surprise that people in Turkmenistan look so diverse. There is a certain look of what I might say a proto-typical Turkmen man should look like, but much like a typical American, that doesn’t mean much. Some people here have that Turkmen look with dark hair, dark eyes, slightly olive skin tone but not much, and let’s say a bit shorter than the average American. But really now, that’s not descriptive at all and so just look at a picture of the current President who I would say has a strong Turkmen look. Plenty of people here appear to be of Russian descent (though that is arguably a loaded term given how diverse Russian is). But if you imagine a Russian from the European side, of the country with fairer hair and skin, then yes, many people here have some element of that appearance. Others here definitely show shades of Persian ancestry and others yet possess a very East Asian appearance. It’s very much an intersection of different cultures that occurred here in Central Asia and everything in between.

Part of it is also a matter of how people identify and associate themselves. As I indicated, one of our engineers feels more Uzbek and speaks Russian back home. Another engineer from a port city on the Caspian said both her parents are Russian and came here for work, but she was born here. She speaks Russian at home, schools were taught in Russian, but she identifies as Turkmen because this is her home, even though she said her Turkmen listening comprehension is only ok, and her Turkmen speaking is poor. I found that especially interesting because it is a natural bias of mine to assume people have an affinity towards their ancestry. Even though the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, a part of me forgets that immigration occurs to other countries as well and people adopt other places as their new homes. Turkmenistan is that new home for some people and an old home for many more.

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